Pierre Bayle and the QAnon “Skeptics”

Print made by James Gillray, 1757–1815, British, Published by Hannah Humphrey, ca. 1745–1818, British, The Theatrical Bubble: Being a New Specimen of the Astonishing Powers of the Great Politico-Punchinello, in the art of Dramatic Puffing, 1805, Etching and aquatint, hand-colored on moderately thick, slightly textured, beige wove paper, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund, B1976.1.143

Print made by James Gillray, 1757–1815, British, Published by Hannah Humphrey, ca. 1745–1818, British, The Theatrical Bubble: Being a New Specimen of the Astonishing Powers of the Great Politico-Punchinello, in the art of Dramatic Puffing, 1805, Etching and aquatint, hand-colored on moderately thick, slightly textured, beige wove paper, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund, B1976.1.143

When Trump supporters attacked the United States Capitol on 6 January 2021, it exposed just how divided our country was and the present willingness to condone violence.  The subsequent calls for unity have centered on political and governmental unity.  These calls speak in ideals of tolerance from the political, Lockean vein as seen in the emphasis on preserving property from destruction and institutions from assault. B ut, as commentators have noted, QAnon, the group most associated with the insurrection, functions more as a religion [i].  To consider how we can respond to this violence, perhaps we should look to Pierre Bayle’s ideas about religious tolerance.  Writing at almost the same moment as Locke but from the continent, Bayle’s ideas about tolerance focus more on the violence surrounding Catholics and Protestants as they jockeyed for control of political institutions but also popular support and may provide a more useful analogue to present-day America.

Bayle’s work addresses issues of truth, knowledge, and conviction, and that seems particularly relevant now as many Americans continue to believe falsehoods with remarkably strong conviction.  The pervasive idea that the truth is relative or unknowable gives space for truth, half-truth, and lies to circulate as equals.  Such was the case in the European seventeenth century as well, and, of course, religious truths always depend more on conviction than provable truth.  The Catholic-Protestant fights of his era must have felt just as troubling as our political upheaval.  Although not faced with source-linked fact checking, convincing and rational discussions by theologians certainly existed and fell on equally deaf ears.  However, I’m more interested in the absolute surety in a conviction rather than if a thing could be proved true or not.  Bayle, I think, was too.

In 1668, Bayle left home to go to university.  He was to become one of the most prolific and influential philosophers of Europe, and surely he must have left home eager to learn, especially after being delayed in his studies because his family was too poor to send more than one child to university at a time.  So, at twenty-one years of age, Bayle left his Huguenot community and entered larger France, where Protestants were barely tolerated.  Although his parents sent him to a Protestant school, three months after leaving home Bayle was at a Jesuit school in Toulouse and had converted to Catholicism [ii].  Bayle completed his Master’s degree and returned home.

I imagine him arriving home with the fervor of a new convert, sure he could save his family from sin only to discover that they already knew all the Catholic arguments and they could not be persuaded.  Away from school, the arguments that seemed so clear no longer made sense.  Bayle’s return to Protestantism was just as swift.  The event stuck with Bayle for life.  It had to—the consequences were huge.  The French might have barely tolerated Protestants, but they did not at all tolerate relapsed heretics.  Bayle spent the rest of his life in hiding or exile [iii].

Although some do, I find it impossible to question Bayle’s faith when he sacrificed so much for it.  Surely, he was angry at the Catholic Church, but Bayle didn’t become a zealot or pursue any violence.  Instead, Bayle’s extremism lies in the extent of his tolerance:  he argued that even atheists should be tolerated and that many atheists lived moral lives [iv].  Such positions certainly led the Catholic Church to label him as a radical, but Bayle’s positions repeatedly speak of moderation and tolerance in religious belief.  Bayle may have gone off to college and had his head turned, but the turning was ultimately a moderating one (much like it is politically for many students today) [v].

He had experienced feeling so sure of a belief that he later believed was untrue.  The one clear truth he learned was that he could be wrong.  He writes about it in A Philosophical Commentary (1686-88), his book on tolerance:  “I have firmly believ’d a thousand things in some part of my Life, which I am far from believing at present; and what I now believe, a great many others I see of as good Sense as my self, believe not a tittle of:  my Assent is often determin’d, not by Demonstrations which appear to me cou’d not be otherwise, and which appear so to others, but by Probabilitys which appear not such to other men” [vi].  It’s a remarkable quote in a remarkable treatise.  He’s asking Christians—Catholic and Protestant—to stop killing one another or using violence to force conversions not because such violent acts are wrong but because we can’t know for sure that our intentions are right.  He starts this philosophy admitting that he, himself, could be wrong and that seeking consensus on how to act was fruitless.

Rather than give up on the truth all together, Bayle contends that “[w]hen Error is dress’d out in the Vestments and Livery of Truth, we owe it the same respect we owe to the Truth itself” [vii].  The claim acknowledges that there is a truth to be found but also how easily that truth can be manipulated into error.  Still, truth should be respected.  The problem lies with ourselves.  How do we know which is truth and which error?  Bayle doesn’t offer an answer.  Instead, he pleads with his readers to know themselves.  We are led astray, he notes, by both “Passion and Prejudice”— the first distorting the truth into what most benefits ourselves and the latter arising from our upbringing, which guides us to see things through a particular cultural lens [viii].  What we need, Bayle claims, is self-awareness and caution because of how easy it is to be misled.

Bayle admits the difficulty of governing in such a world defined by probability and subjective experience.  Rather than attempt to convince a man not to persecute someone for their faith, Bayle argues that he should pause to consider whether his conviction that persecution is necessary is correct.  Bayle writes that “a Murder committed from the Instincts of Conscience, is a less Sin than not committing Murder when Conscience dictates.  They’ll tell me that he who made a Vow to kill a Man, must sin more by performing his Vow, than by breaking it.  I answer, If the breaking his Vow proceed from a better inform’d Conscience, telling him ‘twas a less Sin to violate his Vow than to accomplish it, his Conduct in this case were right.  But if continuing in the Persuasion, that he was not oblig’d to cancel his Vow, he should yet recede from it, my Arguments revert” [ix].  When I first shared this passage with a friend in graduate school, he was disgusted—it gives permission to commit murder!  And murder is clearly against Christian vows of any sort!  And think of the hypocrisy it opens up to claim a murder is just!  My friend isn’t wrong; Bayle is doing all of that.  Put in modern contexts, it leads to some really terrible statements.  For example, “if your conscious dictates that you should ram your car into protesters, then you should ram your car into protestors.”  Or, “if your conscience dictates that you should join an armed insurrection and try to take over the United States Capitol and kill elected government officials, then you should do so.”  It’s an odd thing to say when I cannot understand anyone’s conscience telling them such actions are anything other than reprehensible.

Back then, I defended Bayle by noting that he argues that the state is obligated to punish the murderer for the murder even if the offender felt it a justified murder.  But it’s more than that.  I had trouble articulating it then and still do now, but I think that Bayle is right [x].  If your conscience and sense of rightness tells you that you should do something, then you should.  What Bayle wants is for you to not be so sure of yourself.  Are you absolutely sure that protesters need to die or be injured?  The answer might stay yes—Dylann Roof still seems sure he did the right thing [xi].  Though some have expressed remorse over their part in storming the Capitol, many others remain convinced that their actions were a justified and moral response to a “rigged election” [xii].  Maybe Bayle’s plea wouldn’t stop such large atrocities, but maybe it would stop the ones that led up to it.  Dylann Roof didn’t shoot up a church because the idea came to him in a dream the night before.  He had failed to ask himself if he was sure about a whole slew of ideas before that.

Likewise, the QAnon followers had to build convictions about a range of lies built only on belief:  that the election results were false, that the Deep State exists, that there is a government-run pedophile ring, that Democrats drink the blood of children, and other nonsense [xiii].  QAnon asks its followers to “question the narrative” (as “Q” T-shirts and bumper stickers declare), but it really supplies a narrative that won’t allow any questioning.  In doing so, QAnon is pushing a distorted form of skepticism.  This understanding of skepticism sells “going against the grain,” distrusting authority, and trusting yourself before others.  But skepticism asks us to distrust ourselves and our own perceptions and to question our own beliefs.  Maybe we all need to be picked up and crashed down into a new ideology like Bayle was at twenty-one years of age.  Maybe we all need not just to have our minds changed (after all converts are often the most zealous), but our minds changed over and over again [xiv].  Maybe we need to realize that there is no sureness “to wake up” to, and question and doubt will remain even if we “open our eyes.”

It reminds me of another story of white supremacy I read about—the story of a mom whose young son gets sucked into white supremacist internet channels [xv].  She lets her son go—even lets her son meet white supremacists in person—and in the end he comes back to a less hateful way of thinking.  It was such a risk; she could have lost her son forever, but he had a place to come back to.  In the end, it wasn’t discovering that the beliefs of his new white supremacist friends were wrong that turned the son back, but his skepticism of a bunch of adults agreeing with a thirteen-year-old boy.  In the end, he was suspicious of himself because he was a boy, and he knew he didn’t know enough of the world to cast such judgment.

We could all use a bit more skepticism about our own judgments, myself included, and so I think often of Pierre Bayle.  He called for a tolerance based on questioning our perceptions and convictions.  He didn’t give up on truth or knowledge but instead devoted his life to producing the encyclopedic Dictionnaire Historique et Critique (1697) and building a large correspondence with other seventeenth-century thinkers to test that knowledge.  He argued—and argued strongly for—his perception of the world.  He had convictions but constantly challenged them.  Convictions carry weight, they have consequences, they are often lonely and subject to doubt.  So much of what we call conviction today seems to be about fitting into a group or taking a side and seeking others who share our convictions.  For Bayle, convictions don’t work that way.  His life was a tragedy; he was exiled in a foreign land and suffered the weight of being the cause of his own brother’s death because of his convictions.  The conviction he argued most fervently for is that we should not be so convinced of our beliefs that it leads us to do harm to others.  That is a conviction I can share.

[i]  Caroline Mimbs Nyce, “QAnon Is A New American Religion.”  The Atlantic, May 14, 2020. https://www.theatlantic.com/newsletters/archive/2020/05/qanon-q-pro-trump-conspiracy/611722/.  See also Marc-André Argentino, “The Church of QAnon:  Will Conspiracy Theories Form the Basis of a New Religious Movement?”  The Conversation.  May 18, 2020. https://theconversation.com/the-church-of-qanon-will-conspiracy-theories-form-the-basis-of-a-new-religious-movement-137859

[ii] Thomas M. Lennon and Michael Hickson, “Pierre Bayle.”  The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).  https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2017/entries/bayle/.  For a more complete biography of see Elisabeth Labrousse’s Bayle (trans. Denys Potts, Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1983).

[iii] Lennon and Hickson, https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2017/entries/bayle/.

[iv] Today and during his life, Bayle’s faith was questioned because of his favorable writing about atheism in his Dictionnaire Historique et Critique.  Eighteenth-century scholars have been particularly interested in Bayle’s influence on David Hume’s thoughts on atheism.  See, for example, Pittion, J.-P. (Jean-Paul).  “Hume’s Reading of Bayle:  An Inquiry into the Source and Role of the Memoranda.”  Journal of the History of Philosophy 15.4 (1977):  373-386.  Project MUSE.  muse.jhu.edu/article/229120.

[v] Matthew J. Mayhew, Alyssa N. Rockenbach, Benjamin S. Selznick, and Jay L. Zagorsky.  “Does College Turn People into Liberals?”  The Conversation.  February 2, 2018.  https://theconversation.com/does-college-turn-people-into-liberals-90905

[vi] Bayle, Pierre, A Philosophical Commentary on These Words of the Gospel, Luke 14:23, “Compel Them to Come In, That My House May Be Full.”  Intro by John Kilcullen and Chandran Kukathas.  Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000, 94.  I am quoting from the 1708 English translation, made available by the Liberty Fund, which is the only available full translation in English.

[vii] Bayle, 250.

[viii] “But as Passion and Prejudice do but too often obscure the Ideas of natural Equity, I shou’d advise all who have a mind effectually to retrieve ‘em, to consider these Ideas in the general, and as abstracted from all private Interest, and from the Customs fo their country.  For a fond and deeply-rooted Passion may possibly happen to persuade a Man, that an Action, which he dotes on as profitable and pleasant, is very agreeable to the Dictates of right Reason:  the Power of Custom, and a turn given to the Understanding in the earliest Infancy, may happen to represent an Action as honest and seemly, which in it self is quite otherwise” (69).

[ix] Bayle, 249.

[x] Luckily, Jean-Luc Solére has done so wonderfully.  See “The Coherence of Bayle’s Theory of Toleration.”  Journal of the History of Philosophy 54.1 (2016):  21-46.  In this article Solére takes on the criticism that Bayle’s tolerance argument is inconsistent because it asks for intolerant behavior to be tolerated.  Solére outlines how Bayle’s logic does not support intolerance because Bayle considers violence an evil action even if the intention that caused it is good and because Bayle argues that one is responsible for his or her ignorance in believing that violence is justified.

[xi] Jamie Morrison, Gabe Gutierrez, Mariana Atencio, and Jon Schuppe.  “Charleston Massacre Trial Concludes with Dylann Roof Saying ‘I Had to Do It’.”  NBC News.  January 10, 2017. https://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/charleston-church-shooting/church-massacre-trial-concludes-dylann-roof-saying-i-had-do-n705211.

[xii] Trevor Hughes, “’It Needed to Happen’:  Trump Supporters Defiant after Capitol Attack, Plan to do it Again for Biden’s Inauguration,” USA Today.  January 7, 2021. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2021/01/07/inauguration-day-violence-could-next-after-us-capitol-attack/6584582002/

[xiii] Perhaps the best place to find up-to-date information on the QAnon conspiracies is the frequently updated Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/QAnon#False_predictions,_claims_and_beliefs

[xiv] Allison Pond and Greg Smith.  “The ‘Zeal of the Convert’:  Is It the Real Deal?”  October 28, 2009.  https://www.pewforum.org/2009/10/28/the-zeal-of-the-convert-is-it-the-real-deal/.

[xv] Anonymous.  “What Happened After My 13-Year-Old Son Joined the Alt-Right.”  Washingtonian.  May 5, 2019. https://www.washingtonian.com/2019/05/05/what-happened-after-my-13-year-old-son-joined-the-alt-right/#The-Reckoning

Teresa Saxton

Teresa Saxton is lecturer in English at the University of Dayton. Her research and teaching interests include eighteenth-century British women writers, hospitality, feminisms, and the cultural impact of scandals.