Monday, October 3, 2016

The Scepticism of Bayle

Review of:
"Dictionnaire Historique et Critique" (by Pierre Bayle).

There are no writers who have been more frequently misunderstood than those who have acquired the reputation of scepticism. A sceptic, properly speaking, is the antithesis to a dogmatist. He is a man who holds that nothing can be positively affirmed on any subject, and who keeps his mind in a state of perpetual doubt on all subjects. It may reasonably be doubted whether, in point of fact, such a person ever existed; but at all events it appears clear that considerable injustice is done by applying such a name to the principal persons to whom it has been applied in modern times.

It is difficult to form an opinion as to the ancient philosophers. We know about Zeno and Pyrrho only by reports which must have passed through almost any number of hands before they fell into their present shape, and there was a sort of simplicity and eager delight in ingenuity about the early days of speculation, which, in times of great artificial refinement, it is difficult to estimate correctly.

The mere pleasure of going through ingenious processes may have led many people to say much more than they really and practically meant. In modern times the whole tone of philosophy has been far more earnest, and the attempt to arrive at the real truth, or at all events to inquire with a view to real results, has been much more sincere. The long and intimate alliance between theology and philosophy had many evils, but it had the advantage of making speculation a matter of infinitely greater practical importance, and of a much wider practical range, than was the case in the old world. In a state of society in which philosophical views led straight to moral, political, ecclesiastical, and international consequences of the most definite kind, there was much less probability that men should amuse themselves idly with verbal feats of ingenuity, than in those early times in which Hiram and Solomon sent each other riddles, and in which Zeno invented his remarkable puzzles about the impossibility of motion.

The two chief writers who in modern times have earned the title of sceptics are Bayle and Hume. We should feel much more inclined to describe Hume as what would now be called a Positivist; and as to Bayle, though it might be more difficult to say what his own views were, we think that to describe him as a sceptic, in the proper sense of the word, shows considerable want of appreciation both of his character and of the circumstances under which he wrote.

The chief grounds on which his claims to the title rest are some of the articles in his Dictionary, of which we may specially refer to those on Arcesilas, the Paulicians, Pyrrho, and Zeno, and the 'Eclaircissement sur les Manichéens,' published at the end of the whole book. The articles are most remarkable in themselves, and the general question which they raise, as well as the special question what Bayle himself meant by them, is in a variety of ways full of interest.

Bayle's own style is perfectly admirable, and the reader of these, and other articles of the same sort, is certainly apt to be led to one rather sceptical conclusion — the conclusion, namely, that there is hardly anything left to say upon the great controversies which he at the roots of morals and theology, which has not been said over and over again, and which, in particular, is not to be found in Bayle. For instance, in various places which it would be tiresome to pick out and arrange, Bayle investigates, and balances against each other, nearly all the arguments relating to the great controversy as to Atheism, Deism, and Christianity in its various forms, which have since been urged, and are now being urged, in all parts of Europe to every kind of person.

There is little of any importance in Butler, for instance, on the one hand, or in Voltaire on the other, or in the writings of the other great champions in the Deistical controversy down to our own time, if we except some of the transcendentalist refinements of more modern days, which is not to be found in Bayle. Whatever he does say he says with a vigour, precision, and perfect absence of any sort of obscurity, which we hardly ever find in controversial writers of our own age, and which, according to our mode of handling such topics, would very probably appear irreverent merely by reason of its plainness.

There is, for instance, a long argument in the article on the Paulicians or Manichees, in which the different theories held by various schools of theologians, as to the origin of evil and the freedom of the will, are criticised with merciless severity; the relative positions in which they put God and man being illustrated, not flippantly or with levity, but with a strangely careful minuteness, by comparing them to those of a mother, who, seeing her daughter's virtue endangered, nevertheless, for one reason or another founded on respect for her free will, altogether refuses to interfere. An imaginary Manichee is introduced proposing these difficulties to Jesuits, Jansenists, Calvinists, and Socinians, in turn, and proposing to each a.slightly different modification of his illustration, in order to suit the special theory of the person whom he controverts.

The natural inference drawn from this, which is repeated on all occasions and in a variety of forms, was that Bayle meant to attack all theology, and he was accordingly bitterly reproached with his infidelity.  He replies to the reproach in one of the éclaircissements which form a postscript to his book, and takes up with extreme vigour, and at great length, a line which has been taken frequently since his time. This line is, that to pile up mystery above mystery, and to confuse and utterly humiliate human reason, is the best service which can be rendered to the cause of religion, inasmuch as by that course men are prepared to accept submissively any mysteries which may be proposed to their faith.

Montaigne (on whom, oddly enough, Bayle has no article) took the same ground at great length, and since his time it has been occupied by many others whose sincerity is less open to suspicion than Bayle's. It is very hard to believe that Bayle was sincere. His refutations are too trenchant and vigorous to have been written merely to show the weakness of the human mind. They are much better illustrations of its strength. It is indeed obvious enough, to any one who will take the pains to study what he has written, that his real objection was not so much to dogmatism in general, or even to theological dogmatism in particular, as to the strange scholastic system—for strange it now appears to us— in which all the thoughts of his age upon important subjects were wrapped up.

To think of Bayle as a real consistent sceptic is impossible. His Dictionary is in every part a complete answer to such a charge. Every article in it is pointed, precise, full of life, and full of good sense, and as vigorous in its way of dealing with facts as any piece of literary workmanship in the world. It is only in connection with philosophical and theological speculations that the scepticism with which he is charged appears. On all other topics he is a model of shrewd good sense.

To take one illustration amongst a thousand, nothing can be less sceptical than the appendix, or éclaircissement as he calls it, which follows the one relating to the Manichees. It is a defence—excellent in principle, but utterly false in fact—of his Dictionary against the charge of indecency which had been brought against it. Bayle lays down the rules according to which authors ought to deal with certain subjects, with a vigour and precision which no one could exceed; and tries, with far more ingenuity than success, to show that his own practice could be justified by his principles. This is so far from being sceptical that it is the very antithesis of scepticism. It is elaborate ingenious dogmatism applied to a matter of great intricacy. It must, moreover, be observed, that in every part of his writings Bayle shows unflinching confidence in the canons of reason, and in the resources of his own mind. He argues on all occasions and on all subjects, and thus shows a degree of confidence in the process of reasoning, which no strangeness in the results at which he arrives can prove to be insincere.

By these, amongst other reasons, we are led to the belief that Bayle's scepticism was a mere pretence, intended to cover his disbelief in the theological systems of his day; and that his attempts to show how orthodox and holy a thing thorough scepticism is, and how it may be used to support any system of religious belief which involves submission to mysteries, was a mere exercise of insincere, or at best of half-sincere, ingenuity. There was far more excuse for such insincerity in Bayle's days than in our own. If he had not provided himself with some such shield, it is difficult to say what might have been the consequences. An undisguised avowal of his real opinions might have led to imprisonment, or even to death; for there are remarkable proofs — amongst other places, in Bossuet's writings against the Protestants—that the Protestant ministers, both in England and in Holland, were most eager to persecute the 'libertines,' as the phrase then was; and Bossuet complacently contrasts the absence of infidelity, or at least the impossibility of avowing it, in France, with its boldness in other countries.

In our own days, however, many writers have really persuaded themselves to believe what Bayle pretended to believe. Men of considerable eminence and ability are to be met with who say—sometimes in so many words, sometimes indirectly—that reason leads to absolute scepticism, that faith is diametrically opposed to it, and that no considerations drawn from the one source can have any reference to the other. There is a dashing swagger, and a pretension to superior wisdom, about this way of speaking which makes it worth while to examine shortly the grounds on which reason is thus dealt with, and to see whether Bayle—who, if any one, would have succeeded in such a task—really did contrive to show that reason leads, not to truth, but to every sort of contradiction and absurdity. Perhaps the strongest effort which he makes in this direction is to be found in his article on Zeno, which supplies standing illustrations to those who attempt to make reason commit suicide, but which appears to us, and which in our opinion must have appeared to Bayle himself, to be nothing more than an illustration of the fact that a false method of philosophy leads to absurd results, and that knowledge is to be derived, not from the manipulation of words, but from careful arrangement of the evidence of the senses.

It is difficult to give an idea in a few words of the article itself. It is written, as all Bayle's articles are, in the most inconvenient of all possible forms. There is a short text, which fills just forty lines of large type, dispersed in morsels of two or three lines over ten large folio pages. The rest of the pages is filled with double columns of small type in the nature of notes, running from A to I, supplemented by corollaries as long as themselves, and fortified by marginal notes which are often essential to the argument.

The principal features, however, of the article are the illustrations which it gives of Zeno's 'hypothese de l'acatalepsie ou de l'incomprehensibilite de toutes choses.' These illustrations exhibit, first, Zeno's famous arguments against motion; next, supplementary arguments to the same effect, which he might have used—and, as Bayle observes, perhaps did use—drawn from the difficulties which may be proposed as to the nature of space, extent, the vacuum and the plenum, the divisibility and indivisibility of matter. Pursuing the subject in another note, Bayle anticipates a great part, perhaps the greater part, of the arguments of Berkeley on the existence of matter, and at last arrives—though in scholastic language, and as if he were reaching an absurd, or at least paradoxical, result—at the general doctrine which is held by all modern philosophers deserving the name, of the relativity of human knowledge.

Speaking of the 'Solvitur ambulando' by which Diogenes refuted Zeno, he says, 'C'est le sophisme que les logiciens appellent ignorationem elenchi. C'était sortir de l'état de la question, car ce philosoph ne rejetoit pas le mouvement apparent, il ne nioit pas qu'il ne semble a l'homme qu'il y a du mouvement, mais il soutenoit que reellement rien ne se meut, et il le prouvoit par des raisons tressubtiles et tout a fait embarassantes.'

This remark, though Bayle hardly seems to have seen it, goes in reality to the root of the whole matter; and if it were properly understood, and its truth generally admitted, would put an end to a great deal of the nonsense which people are in the habit of talking, often with the best intentions, about the mysteries with which we are surrounded on all sides, and the imbecility of human reason, even in matters of the commonest kind.

In order to make this clear, we will first exhibit in somewhat greater detail a few of Zeno's paradoxes as reported by Bayle, and then state what we conceive to be the true view of the subject, and the real way out of the maze in which such writers attempt to envelop the human mind.

Zeno proved the impossibility of motion by four principal reasons, which Bayle thus restates from Aristotle. First, if an arrow which tends towards a certain place moved, it would be at once at rest and in motion. This is contradictory, therefore it does not move. That it would be at once at rest and in motion is thus proved. At each instant the arrow is in a space equal to itself, and is therefore at rest in that place; for a thing is not in a place from which it is moving, therefore there is no moment at which it moves; and if there were such a moment it would be at once at rest and in motion. This argument rests on two principles. First, a thing cannot be in two places at once. Next, time is not infinitely divisible, for one hour is over before the next begins; but if a moment were infinitely divisible, it would never have passed. Therefore the next never would begin. 'Ceux,' says Bayle with a want of temper unusual in him, 'qui nient cette conséquence doivent être abandonnés ou à leur stupidité, ou à leur mauvaise foi, ou à la force insurmontable de leurs prejugés.' Aristotle was one of these unhappy persons, for he maintained that time was not indivisible.

The second objection is that, if there were motion, the moving body would pass from place to place; but that cannot be, because space is infinitely divisible. To this Aristotle replies that space is infinitely divisible only potentially. Bayle calls this answer 'pitiful.' Time, he insists, cannot be infinitely divisible, because it does actually pass. Whereas space is infinitely divisible, because you can always cut a given thing into two parts.

The third objection is only another illustration of the first. It is the old riddle of the hare and the tortoise.

The fourth objection is so odd that we are by no means sure that we understand it. Take a table four yards long. Let two sticks rest on it, each of which is also four yards long. One (A) touches one end of the table. Two yards of the length of the other (B) lie on the other end. A moves till it lies at full length on the table. B does not begin to move till A reaches its extremity, when it begins to move in the opposite direction at the same rate. In half the time during which A has been in motion, A and B lie side by side on the table, covering its whole length. A of course has taken twice as long as B to get into this position. 'Then,' says Bayle, 'two moving bodies pass over the same space at the same rate, and one takes twice as long as the other to do it. Hence two hours or minutes are equal to one.

That the two sticks have passed over equal spaces, at equal rates, in unequal times, is proved thus: A has passed over the whole table, which is four yards long. B has touched the whole of A, which is also four yards long. The unfortunate Aristotle observes that the space passed over by the stick A is measured against the table which is at rest, and that passed over by the stick B is measured against the stick A, which is in motion; but this, says Bayle, does not remove the difficulty, which is, that 'it seems incomprehensible how in the same time a piece of wood can traverse four yards with that side which touches another stick, while it traverses only two with that side which touches the table.'

To a modern reader the difficulty lies in the fact that Bayle, or any other human being, saw any difficulty at all in it. If the sticks were mathematical points, it would be obvious that they moved over equal spaces in equal time, for, after A had reached B, it would move to the west end of the table in precisely the same time as B moved to the east end; and, taking Bayle's illustration, each point in each stick moves over precisely the same space—namely, two yards, in the same time. The difficulty about the two sides of the stick is as if a man should call it a mystery that, in walking down the Strand, he passed five hundred people on the right hand, and only two hundred and fifty on the left.

It is obvious enough, from other parts of the same article, that Bayle had very indistinct ideas about motion, for he says in a marginal note to this fourth objection—'The same difficulty may be made about the small wheels of a coach, which go over as much ground as the large wheels, in the same number of turns on their centre. The same may be said of two wheels, one large and the other small, on the same axle.' These statements are both false in fact. The small wheel of a coach turns much oftener than the large one, unless it drags, and the small wheel on the same axle passes over less ground. It is difficult to understand how a man who had ever seen a common wheel and axle for drawing water from a well could have fallen into so gross a blunder as this last. The contrivance would be idle and ineffectual unless each point in the rim of the wheel, which is only a continuous lever, passed through a much larger space in each revolution than any point on the rim of the axle.

The first and second objections may easily be shown to be mere ingenious riddles. Time, says Bayle, is not infinitely divisible, but consists of minima called moments. In each moment the body is at rest in a given space. Unless, therefore, it could be in two places at once, or at rest and in motion at the same moment, it will never get from place to place. This argument is a mere tangle of fallacies. First, the word motion means nothing else than the fact that at one moment the body is in one place, and at each successive moment in a different place a little farther on. Next, if time is divisible into minima, there is no reason why a body should not be in different places at once, or at rest and in motion at once, if at once means in one of these minima. The minima, or 'nows,' may be imagined to be of any length. Suppose each 'now' were a quarter of an hour. A man during one 'now' might walk a mile, or be carried fifteen miles in an express train.

The absurdity of the argument may be displayed by stating it in other words. Moving bodies require a certain time to pass from one spot to another, but at each moment they are in a given space. Therefore there is no moment in which they can pass from one space to another. Therefore they do not pass. The whole argument, it is obvious, rests upon the supposition that they do. You assume the existence of motion in order to disprove its existence. Bayle, indeed, attempts to answer this by saying that the argument should be stated otherwise. 'If bodies moved they would require,' etc. But, as he says of Aristotle, we may say of him—this is pitiful. It only puts the difficulty one step farther off. How do you know that, if bodies moved, they would require a certain time to pass through a certain space? Only by seeing them move. The conditional proposition assumes motion just as much as the direct one.

As for the difficulty, that if a body moved it would have to pass over an infinite number of divisions of space, which is impossible except in an infinite time, the answer is simply that it is not impossible. How do you know that it is impossible for a body to pass over infinite space in a finite time? After more or less wriggling, the real answer must always be because infinite space is very long. Then, if you choose to use 'infinite' to mean very short, the ground of the objection fails. All the puzzles about infinite space and infinite time are founded upon the trick of using 'infinite' sometimes to mean 'too long to be imagined,' and at other times to mean 'too short to be imagined.'

The oddest part of the whole puzzle is, that Bayle declares that Zeno never denied, and could not deny, apparent motion, but only real motion. The clue to the whole maze lies in this. It is obvious, though it certainly is difficult to understand it fully, that Bayle had some strange distinction present to his mind between appearance and reality, and that this pervaded the whole of the philosophy which he delighted to twist into grotesque and impossible shapes. Once fairly grasp the truth that there is no reality except appearance, that words are only signs by which mental pictures are called up, that the correspondence of such images with the external world is what we mean by truth, and that our own assurance of such correspondence is what we mean by knowledge, and all Bayle's subtleties, and indeed all other such riddles, are easily explained.

It may appear mere loss of time to insist upon this, as nobody ever attached the slightest practical importance to such trifles. In fact, many people do attach great practical importance to them. They use them as an argument in favour of believing absurdities which they dignify by the name of mysteries. Roman Catholics often justify a belief in transubstantiation on such grounds.

The following argument, for instance, was really used in favour of that belief by a man of great learning and remarkable ability. Mathematics, he said, disclose mysteries as profound as transubstantiation, as thus— Let a = b. Then a2 = ab. And a2 - b2 = ab - b2, or (a X b) (a - b) = (a - b) b, or a X b = b, or 2a = a, or 2 = 1. Stripped of its algebraical form, this notable mystery may be thus expressed: Twice nothing is nothing, therefore two equals one. Recall the true nature of words, and the matter becomes perfectly plain. Multiplication means the process of adding groups of magnitudes to each other; but if there are no magnitudes, the process cannot be performed, and thus the phrase 'twice nothing' is, in the strict sense of the word, unmeaning. 'Twice' does not modify 'nothing.' It is like talking of square friendship or circular reverence. In other words '2' and ' 1' are adjectives, not substantives. The meaning of the above riddle is—'Nothing' is the only substantive which can supply a sense to the expressions 2 = 1, for 'two nothings' and 'one nothing' are different names for the same thing.

The so-called 'mysteries' about space and time admit of an answer which we do not remember to have seen given, and which it may therefore be worth while to state very shortly. The 'mystery' about space is that, on the one hand, unlimited space cannot be imagined as a whole; and that, on the other hand, a limitation of all space is equally difficult to imagine. But let us see whether an end to space cannot be described. Suppose a man were carried through space for an enormous distance, and suppose he were suddenly to lose every perception of extent, retaining all his other faculties, and merely recollecting the extended things which he had previously seen, without immediately perceiving any.

This is imaginable; for if we shut our eyes and lost our sense of touch, and what has been called the muscular sense, it would actually happen. Next, suppose that millions of people making the same journey always met with the same experience; would it not be correct to say that space ended at the moment when, and at the place where, it was last perceived, that on arriving at that spot the next moment of time was without a corresponding space, and that this was therefore the end of space? This is a distinct image; whether or not any fact corresponds to it is another question.

As to the end of time, we have only to imagine all change of every sort at an end, and time would be no more. There would be an 'everlasting now.' It wants little imagination to realise this. Simple as they are, these two illustrations, well considered, would solve all the 'mysteries' about space and time, and reduce the infinite divisibility, or extent, of either to a bare question of fact, to be decided by experience.

It may be asked, Do you then eliminate all mystery from life? Is it unreasonable to believe anything which we cannot understand? For many reasons it is necessary to give distinct answers to these questions, and the answer in each case must depend on the meaning of the words. If you mean by a mystery, a proposition which contradicts either the senses or the reason, then assuredly all mystery ought to be eliminated from life, for such mysteries are only absurdities under another name. If by a mystery you mean a proposition relating to matters of which we are ignorant, then mystery will never be eliminated from life till men become omniscient.

If, by believing what you cannot understand, you mean, as many people appear to mean, arriving on one set of grounds (which are generally called reason) at the conclusion that the proposition in question is false, and on another set of grounds (which are generally called faith) at the conclusion that it is true, and then resting in the conclusion that it is true, the habit appears to us a most pernicious form of dishonesty.

If, by believing what you cannot understand, you mean believing that a proposition which to you conveys either no meaning, or an apparently false meaning, nevertheless conveys to those who are better instructed than yourself a true and important meaning of which you are ignorant, but towards which, if you are sufficiently patient and thoughtful, the proposition put before you will be a guide; then, believing what you do not understand, when proper reasons are assigned for doing so, is one of the greatest acts of wisdom which a man can perform.

Saturday Review, February 24, 1866.

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