Pierre Bayle – Preface to the first issue of Nouvelles de la République des Lettres – 1684

Pierre Bayle (1647-1706) – sometimes nominated as the first of the Enlightenment philosophes – was a man with a price on his head.  A French Huguenot exile in Holland, a man who could fight religious intolerance by drawing lessons lessons from comets,  a polemical master whose freethinking, racy Dictionnaire (4 volumes: 1694-1702) outraged everyone it did not delight, Bayle made his name as a journalist whose Nouvelles de la République des Lettres captured the mood of free inquiry and exchange of ideas that was surging among European intellectuals.

The Nouvelles lasted but three years under Bayle’s editorship.  Its issues, mostly reviews of forgettable books, are read today only be specialists.  But its twelve paragraph Preface remains one of the earliest and best arguments for open-mindedness, freedom of the press, and the free market of ideas.  Google Books has published a beautiful facsimile version of the original French text.  But despite its fame, the Preface has perhaps not ,until now, been translated into English.  The first six (and most interesting) paragraphs are offered here.

(The numbers in the text delineate the original paragraph’s of the preface, which in some cases have been broken up for readability.  Thanks are given to Google books and Google Translate, without whose OCR capabilities I could not have obtained a working French text, not to mention so many hints for an English language rendering.)

This translation is dedicated to Shadi Hamid and to all the signers of the Harper’s magazine “Letter.”


Mois de Mars, 1684


It has already been shown that a popular and convenient way of informing the public of curious happenings in the Republic of Letters is through a sort of newspaper.  Indeed, no sooner did Monsieur Sallo, counsellor of the Parlement de Paris, put into view his first attempts at the beginning of 1665, than multiple nations expressed their joyous approval, either by translating the Journal des Sçavans,[1] which this beautiful spirit has been producing every eight days, or by publishing something similar.  And this emulation has continued to increase, spreading not just from nation to nation, but from one science to another.  Physicists and chemists now publish their reports, jurisprudence and medicine have been diarized, even the diverse nouvelles galantes of religion, war, and politics have found their Mercure.[2]  M. Sallo’s first design is copied in an infinity of ways by nearly everyone.


It is surprising that the Republic of Holland, so long marked by its cultivation of the arts, its victories, and its commerce, has yet to participate in the general emulation of which I have spoken.  It cannot be said that it is for want of persons capable of executing such a design, or for want of material, for it is well known that Holland does not lack clever people and that it is furnished with booksellers. as much or more as any place in the world.  We know its inhabitants are industrious and inventive, and that the voyages to the Indies have brought back a hundred rare things, unknown to other peoples.

And Holland has an advantage found not in any other Paris: we grant to printers a liberty of sufficient extent that they can address themselves to all the places of Europe where we would be discouraged by the difficulties of obtaining a privilege.  Surely, if Milton had lived in these provinces, he would not have been compelled to write his De Typografia Liberanda,[3] for he would not have felt that matters were in servitude in this respect.

Our presses provide refuge for Catholics and Reformers alike, and so small is our fear of the arguments of Messieurs de la Communion de Rome that we allow their books to be publicly sold, as is far from the case in the countries of the Inquisition, where, as Chevalier Sandys[4] reported, they will not allow even the books of Catholic  controversialists to be put up for sale, for fear that the objections of Protestants that are referenced in these works will come to be known.


This ability to publish openly presents such advantages towards producing a scholarly journal that I marveled that no one had undertaken such a project in this country.  More than once I was tempted to undertake it, but the hope that someone of greater leisure and capacity would rise to the challenge allowed me, until recently, to resist the idea without too much trouble.  But I must admit that the sight the new Mercure savant,[5] with the realization of how much it falls short, caused my old wish to rebound with greater strength than ever.  Fortified by the urgings of a great man,[6] whose advice to me will always be law, I charged into this enterprise – and here is the first attempt.


It is hoped that the curious will not be put off to see that the beginnings of this work do not display all the strength that will be required.  They are begged to excuse these failings and to be assured that, once things have been set into motion and our correspondence network established, all will go well.  It is also hoped that people who care deeply about the education and public satisfaction of men of letters will not refuse us the help and the memoranda we will need to improve this work.  In the same way we pray for the assistance of all the people of this country who will have prices knowledge of newly-invented machines or of the rarities that will be brought back from the Indies.


Nonetheless, we feel obliged to provide the public with early notice that, because of the matter we touched on above, that is, the liberty enjoyed by our booksellers, we do not intend to establish an office for the address of gossip or to make use of communications whose only purpose would be to blacken someone’s reputation.  An honest man would be ashamed of such license, and nothing shocked us more in the Mercure savant than the eagerness which reigns there to maltreat illustrious.[7]

Our method will be far removed from this.  We will content ourselves with a reasonable middle ground between servile flattery and the boldness of a censor. If we criticize a work, it will be not  be out of malignity or safe conformity, and it will be with such strength as hopes to raise interest and not mere irritation.  Our first commitment is not to prejudge any author, for or against – what a ridiculous vanity would be required to pretend to such insight!  In approving or refuting we will not play  favorites; our goal is  to provide scholars with opportunities to perfect their public claims.

And second, we declare that we are satisfied  to subjugate our feelings to the criticism of anyone.  Not being slaves to our opinions, we will not be angered by the sight of their being badly treated.  For as Cicero wrote:

We, who pursue only probabilities, who cannot go beyond that which seems to be true, can confute others without obstinacy, for we are prepared to be confuted without resentment.[8]

Tastes are so different, even among great minds, even among those who pass for the best connoisseurs, that one should neither be astonished nor angry not to win the approval of every fair judge.  In no way should this diminish the satisfaction that authors take in themselves and their works.


And another point, which is no less important:  We will presume neither to speak mainly of books that concern our religion nor to avoid the subject completely, but to speak when we do discuss it In a way that does not reflect an unreasonable bias.  Seeing our job as reporter, rather than as judge, we will provide as faithful extracts of the books that our against us as for us.

It is good that  we make this known, since we would not want the gentlemen of the Roman Church to be alarmed in the least by the appearance of our journal.   We shall spare their delicacy, which must be great, for they never speak of our books or, if they sometimes say just a word, it is always with the intent to deter or intimidate the spirit.  They must have less confidence in the enlightened reader than we do, or more distrust of their cause than we have of ours, or perhaps a better opinion of our books than we of theirs.

Be that as it may, we advise the public that this work will not focus on controversial books, except where it will be necessary to demonstrate our impartiality on important subjects.  We will act with such circumspection that these Nouvelles will provide no reason to be banned, and that they will serve, all the more, to make it known if a book is suspect.  That way, those gentlemen of the Congregation of the Index, whether in Rome or elsewhere, will not need to read much to discover which books are contraband.[9]


[1] Or, Journal des Savants.  Inaugurated, as Bayle mentions, by Denis de Sallo in 1665, it has appeared continuously since then, except for a twenty-five year hiatus during the revolutionary/Napoleonic period.  It is currently published under the auspices of the Institut de France.

[2] Bayle refers to Le Mercure galant, begun by Jean Donneau de Visé in 1672.  It is published today, after many interruptions, as Le Mercure de France by Gallimard.  Some have called it the first Vanity Fair.

[3] Bayle refers to the 1643 Areopagitica, which Milton described in his Latin Defensio Secunda (1654) as “de typographia liberanda,” or “on the liberty of printing.”  Bayle perhaps mistook Milton’s description for the title.

[4] The reference is to Sir Edwin Sandys (1561-1629), an Englishman (known to American students as one of the founders of the Virginia Company) who with the Venetian cleric Paulo Sarti published a critical survey of the state of religion in Europe.  I have omitted from the translation a sentence that expands upon this reference.

[5] An Amsterdam-based French language journal that appeared in a single double issue, Jan-Feb. 1684, immediately before the appearance of Bayle’s Nouvelles.  http://dictionnaire-journaux.gazettes18e.fr/journal/0949-mercure-savant

[6] The reference is to fellow Huguenot exile Pierre Jurieu, who clashed bitterly with Bayle in later years.

[7] A  sentence in which Bayle speculates on the identity and motives of the Mercure savant editor has been omitted.

[8] Tusculan Disputations, II, 5.  Tr. By C.D.Yonge (1877). https://www.gutenberg.org/files/14988/14988-h/14988-h.htm

[9] The Preface continues for six additional paragraphs, which are omitted here.


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