Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

Bayle.

Few philosophers were more deserving of the title than, Bayle. His last hour exhibits the Socratic intrepidity with which he encountered the formidable approach of death. I have seen the original letter of the bookseller Leers, where he describes the death of our philosopher. “On the evening preceding his decease, having studied all day, he gave my corrector some copy of his ‘Answer to Jacquelot,’ and told him that he was very ill. At nine in the morning his laundress entered his chamber; he asked her, with a dying voice, if his fire was kindled? and a few moments after he died.” His disease was an hereditary consumption, and his decline must have been gradual; speaking had become with him a great pain, but he laboured with the same tranquillity of mind to his last hour; and, with Bayle, it was death alone which, could interrupt the printer.

The irritability of genius is forcibly characterised by this circumstance in his literary life. When a close friendship had united him to Jurieu, he lavished on him the most flattering eulogiums: he is the hero of his “Republic of Letters.” Enmity succeeded to friendship; Jurieu is then continually quoted in his “Critical Dictionary,” whenever an occasion offers to give instances of gross blunders, palpable contradictions, and inconclusive arguments. These inconsistent opinions may be sanctioned by the similar conduct of a Saint! St. Jerome praised Rufinus as the most learned man of his age, while his friend; but when the same Rufinus joined his adversary Origen, he called him one of the most ignorant!

As a logician Bayle had no superior; the best logician will, however, frequently deceive himself. Bayle made long and close arguments to show that La Motte le Vayer never could have been a preceptor to the king; but all his reasonings are overturned by the fact being given in the “History of the Academy,” by Pelisson.

Basnage said of Bayle, that he read much by his fingers. He meant that he ran over a book more than he read it; and that he had the art of always falling upon that which was most essential and curious in the book he examined.

There are heavy hours in which the mind of a man of letters is unhinged; when the intellectual faculties lose all their elasticity, and when nothing but the simplest actions are adapted to their enfeebled state. At such hours it is recorded of the Jewish Socrates, Moses Mendelssohn, that he would stand at his window, and count the tiles of his neighbour’s house. An anonymous writer has told of Bayle, that he would frequently wrap himself in his cloak, and hasten to places where mountebanks resorted; and that this was one of his chief amusements. He is surprised that so great a philosopher should delight in so trifling an object. This objection is not injurious to the character of Bayle; it only proves that the writer himself was no philosopher.

The “Monthly Reviewer,” in noticing this article, has continued the speculation by giving two interesting anecdotes. “The observation concerning ‘heavy hours,’ and the want of elasticity in the intellectual faculties of men of letters, when the mind is fatigued and the attention blunted by incessant labour, reminds us of what is related by persons who were acquainted with the late sagacious magistrate Sir John Fielding; who, when fatigued with attending to complicated cases, and perplexed with discordant depositions, used to retire to a little closet in a remote and tranquil part of the house, to rest his mental powers and sharpen perception. He told a great physician, now living, who complained of the distance of places, as caused by the great extension of London, that ‘he (the physician) would not have been able to visit many patients to any purpose, if they had resided nearer to each other; as he could have had no time either to think or to rest his mind.’”

Our excellent logician was little accustomed to a mixed society: his life was passed in study. He had such an infantine simplicity in his nature, that he would speak on anatomical subjects before the ladies with as much freedom as before surgeons. When they inclined their eyes to the ground, and while some even blushed, he would then inquire if what he spoke was indecent; and, when told so, he smiled, and stopped. His habits of life were, however, extremely pure; he probably left himself little leisure ”to fall into temptation.

Bayle knew nothing of geometry; and, as Le Clerc informs us, acknowledged that he could never comprehend the demonstration of the first problem in Euclid. Le Clerc, however, was a rival to Bayle; with greater industry and more accurate learning, but with very inferior powers of reasoning and philosophy. Both of these great scholars, like our Locke, were destitute of fine taste and poetical discernment.

When Fagon, an eminent physician, was consulted on the illness of our student, he only prescribed a particular regimen, without the use of medicine. He closed his consultation by a compliment remarkable for its felicity. “I ardently wish one could spare this great man all this constraint, and that it were possible to find a remedy as singular as the merit of him for whom it is asked.”

Voltaire has said that Bayle confessed he would not have made his Dictionary exceed a folio volume, had he written only for himself, and not for the booksellers. This Dictionary, with all its human faults, is a stupendous work, which must last with literature itself. I take an enlarged view of Bayle and his Dictionary, in a subsequent article.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37