Michael Hickson

There has been no shortage of interpretations of Bayle on evil, but these may be nearly exhaustively divided into two camps: atheistic readings and fideistic readings. On the atheistic readings, Bayle intended to show the absolute incompatibility of the existence of God and that of evil; the fideistic readings argue that Bayle's thesis was that reason is an unreliable guide in religious matters, thus leading the way to faith.

Both the atheistic and fideistic readings of Bayle unduly limit their attention to the internal logic of Bayle’s attacks on theodicy, and fail to situate them both within Bayle’s larger project in the Dictionary as well as within the philosophical currents of the seventeenth century. My project will avoid these shortcomings by showing that Bayle’s rejection of theodicy followed from his espousal in the Dictionary of the principles of Academic skepticism to which he was earlier introduced through the work of several of his contemporaries.

There are two main reasons for linking Bayle's mature thought on evil with early modern Academic skepticism. First, Bayle's aim in undermining theodicy was to show the underlying hubris of that project; a hubris, moreover, that Bayle believed was the foundation of intolerance. Bayle's refutation of theodicy thus had a practical goal—tolerance—rather than a metaphysical or epistemological one (e.g. to prove that God does not exist or that human reason is incapable of making sense of evil). The recent literature on early modern Academic skepticism distinguishes that school from modern Pyrrhonism along just these lines: modern Academics were concerned with explaining and promoting moral and intellectual integrity, while modern Pyrrhonists were concerned above all with showing the limits of reason.

Second, Simon Foucher was a proponent and historian of Academic skepticism, and Bayle was reading Foucher around 1687—the time when skepticism became explicit in Bayle’s writings, and just before he set about writing the Dictionary. It is also around 1687 that Bayle began questioning Malebranche’s theodicy, the only theodicy with promise in Bayle’s view. Since Foucher was a critic of Malebranche, it is reasonable to suspect that Bayle's reading of Foucher motivated him to finally give up the project of theodicy. Foucher's Academic skepticism gave shape both to Bayle’s own skepticism and particularly his skeptical thesis on theodicy.

This project will not be "merely" historical. The recent trend of skeptical theism in the philosophy of religion shares much in common with early modern Academic skepticism. Bayle's debates with his contemporaries on the problem of evil anticipate recent debates in the literature between skeptical theists and their opponents. It may well turn out that Bayle's writings, once feared for their potential to lead to atheism, can provide contemporary theists with the arguments they need to defend the belief in a benevolent God against the atheistic argument from evil.