Novelists are used to their characters getting away from them. Tolstoy once complained that Katyusha Maslova was “dictating” her actions to him as he wrestled with the plot of his last novel, Resurrection. There was a story that after reading Mikhail Sholokhov’s And Quiet Flows the Don, Stalin praised the work but advised the author to “convince” the main character, Melekhov, to stop loafing about and start serving in the Red Army. At their next meeting, Sholokhov said to Stalin, “I tried to do that, but Melekhov does not want it.”
The challenge of controlling the material is one that historians also face, even if the stakes are generally lower. “It does seem,” Carl Becker once protested, “that people living in past times often act as if the convenience of the future historian were a matter of negligible importance.” When I began a project on the ethical roots of unbelief, I had a clear sense of what I was going to argue. It would be a history of conscience in which morality triumphs over faith. Kant, and his moral law within, would be the model. But the sources did not want it.
A central figure in my project, and a vital link between the Reformation and the Enlightenment, was a Protestant philosopher called Pierre Bayle (1647-1706). Bayle enjoyed a legendary status in the eighteenth century as a kind of philosophical assassin, a tireless and agile critic of religious authority. He was the first European thinker to suggest that a society of benevolent atheists might be possible. He offended nearly everybody when he said that religion is no safeguard of peace and social harmony. Bayle was a rigorous and often gleeful destroyer, and his skepticism was rooted in precisely the kind of moral passion that I was looking for. I had my bridge between Luther and Kant. But the closer I got to this fierce and redoubtable thinker, the more he rebelled from the role of a secular icon. Bayle was a believer. The demolition man of the seventeenth century was a man of prayer.
With one eye on the future, on what Hume or Diderot would do with his X-rated portfolio, I had been slow to grasp the intensity of Bayle’s troubled piety. The truth was that he attacked a persecuting church in the name of its “adorable Founder.” He was a master of innuendo and corrosive ridicule, but there were some things he did not joke about. Bayle’s enduring conviction, as he savaged the reputation of a theologian such as Augustine, was that “God is merciful.” For Bayle, a theology of persecution, stitched together with verses from the New Testament, was not so much a failure of logic or interpretive skill: it was blasphemy. My thesis took a religious turn.
As I learned to look back, toward motives and origins, rather than forward toward outcomes, a subversive theory began to materialize: the nemesis of Christian orthodoxy is Christian spirituality itself. Time and again, it was the committed believer, armed with a personal sense of what religion should be, who asked the sternest questions. Piety was dissent. It brought a quality of indignation, an educated fury, more dynamic than the rays of humanist learning in the erosion of orthodoxy. The trail of protest took me back into the appraisive drama of the Reformation, where I found an army of mystics beating Bayle to his task. This is one reason why secularism never lost the feel of sectarianism, a struggle for purity. That is how it began. The Enlightenment was a fizzing reality before Voltaire was invented.
In this civil war of the spirit, the English Quakers seemed to be everywhere. They were pioneers of a kind of spiritual rationalism that extolled the “inner light” of Christ above any external authority, including the Bible. It is no accident that Thomas Paine was raised on this deeply Protestant formula, or that Baruch Spinoza developed his biblical criticism in the flamboyant company of a roaming Quaker evangelist and scholar, Samuel Fisher. Voltaire was obsessed with the Quakers, attributing many of his ideas to the “just” and “peaceable” sect. After a year in his company, I believed him.
But the biggest surprise remained Spinoza, the “Moses of modern freethinkers,” who simply refused to play the part posterity had assigned for him. Even more than Bayle, Spinoza judged religion with the nervous energy of an insider. The “prince of atheists” was another bruised believer. Only a handful of scholars seemed to appreciate this. Of all my sources, Spinoza was the one who really got under my skin – a courageous and profound thinker as frequently misunderstood by his admirers as his detractors.
Yet as Spinoza eloquently acknowledged, you cannot force anyone to agree with you. I once gave a public lecture on Spinoza, giving full rein to his mystical affinities and explaining how his suspicions of “providence” surfaced in response to persecution. He was trying to recover jewels from a bonfire. I felt my audience stiffen as I redefined a philosophical bogeyman as a frustrated believer. “But would he pass a Trinity test?” came the first question, steering us back to common sense. I wouldn’t like to ask.
Featured image credit: “Rotterdam, Crooswijk, Begraafplaats. Kunstwerk ‘Pierre Bayle bank’ van Paul Cox. The Netherlands.” by Wikifrits. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.