Manuscript held by G. W. Leibniz Bibliothek, Hanover
Shelfmark LH IV 2, 2f, Bl. 1-2

Date: 1692

Translated from the French

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[LH IV 2, 2f, Bl. 1r]

     I have always been convinced of Mr Bayle's great learning, but I never imagined he had gone so far into the detail of what is called fine literature and historical facts as I now realise he has in his essay on the Critical Dictionary.1 His aim is to remark upon and to correct the errors of Dictionaries,2 evidently not only Historical and Geographical dictionaries which contain proper names, but also real dictionaries which contain terms of the sciences, and I don't know if he will go as far as those of the arts. His letter to Mr du Rondel, which seems to serve as a preface, leaves us in suspense with regard to the full extent of the plan.
     The undertaking is one the finest and most useful, but also one of the greatest: a Herculean work. Few people are as capable of it as he is, both with regard to the reading and the penetration. I hope that his body will hold out, as well as his mind. Yet I have heard that Mr Bayle's health is not the rudest, which worries me and obliges me to hope that he has not charged himself with a superfluous endeavour which could prevent him from fulfilling the full scope of this fine work. What I mean is as follows.
     The aim is doubtless to instruct the public, but this aim can be achieved by correcting the errors of authors without always indicating them. Most readers don't care to know how often Moreni has fallen short, and only rarely are they interested in the disputes between the learned, but they will be delighted to know that they are only ever given very reliable things or at least provided with good guarantees. Some will even be put off by reading about disputes they are not involved with, and which in some way divert them from the clear and distinct understanding of the matter. I imagine the best way to achieve this would be to speak of the matter in itself, to report most often the passages of authors upon whom one relies, and to give their own words in imitation of Mr du Cange's excellent work.3 These words could be put in the margin, because apparently there are qualms about frequently inserting Greek or Latin in the body of a French text. If the work had been undertaken in Latin there would have been more freedom [LH IV 2, 2f, Bl. 1v] on this, for in matters of fact there is nothing better than to see authors' own words.
     So the έργον4 being to establish the truth, the πάρεργον5 would be to indicate sometimes the opinions not of a Moreni, whose errors are countless, but of more important and original authors, especially when they have treated the matter thoroughly, made some observation or discovery, or have advanced something new or extraordinary, and mainly when their opinion has an air of plausibility. And to avoid excessive verbosity, I think one should often exempt oneself from entering into a long discussion about arguments, for a good account of the formal authorities which each side relies upon enables the learned to judge what there is in them, and those who are not capable of that will hardly be in the state or mood to come to a judgement of the case, whatever discussions they are provided with, which often only confuse them. For I am certain that many people, after having read some controversial article, will not know where they are with it, and will demand that they be given the substance of it.
     Moreover, as it will be impossible to always explain things thoroughly, one could, after having said what is most important, refer the reader who wants more to those who would be most able to satisfy him, like those who have written treatises or chapters expressly on the subject in question, especially when these authors go back to the beginning. It is true that an excellent author who only touches upon the issue in passing often gives more insights than could a less talented writer in an entire book or chapter, and this is when it is good to indicate the passage of the good author and generally not to lack awareness of those from whom one has benefited.
     And as the matter seems almost infinite, and as it is impossible to avoid omissions, I would desire that one begin with the most useful, leaving it to subsequent editions and continuators to fill the gaps and supply what is missing. This is why titles like "Achilles," where he goes too far into the fabulous and chimerical,6 could be a little more reserved, for there are so many errors to put right and difficulties to clear up in [LH IV 2, 2f, Bl. 2r] true history - regarding chronology, genealogies of important houses, ancient, medieval and modern geography, the life of persons who are illustrious through their birth, actions or knowledge - that there will no time left to expand upon the less important subjects without neglecting the main ones.
     Perhaps it would not be a bad idea also to keep to a certain constant order in each title, for these free and roaming discussions in which the connections emerge by chance, like they do in a conversation, are good in some small genteel work written to entertain people rather than benefit them, but they are not good for clarifying matters, the good arrangement of which often function as commentary and helps to spare the words.
     But I say all this only because I wish such an important work succeed as best and as soon as it can. For I readily admit that no one can judge better than Mr Bayle himself of the material he will want to use and the appropriate form. As for the form, he has so thoroughly examined so many good books that it can be said he is peritissimus spectator formarum7 in this genre. And with regard to the material, it is right that he has the right of selection. Every founder naturally has jus patronatus.8 Everyone has knowledge and favourite thoughts that he is entitled to put into his works without having to be accused of a crime of omission when he passes silently over things which might deserve his attention as much as what he has said. He will sometimes have particular information about or observations on some person, family, place, history or matter which will present itself to his memory or judgement in preference to others, for which he would perhaps need more research and would only end up copying things that have been given by others, and nevertheless are scarcely necessary. So in order to manage his time and his sweep, he will be prone to prefer what is closest to him and to use this opportunity to tell the public what he knows better than someone else, or what he has had the good fortune to discover. So whatever he offers from his own [LH IV 2, 2f, Bl. 2v] recesses or draws from often-overlooked passages of others will be useful, even if one could do without it in other respects. And this is why, far from criticizing him for the honour he did to Madam des Loges,9 I think he should be thanked for it, without all the ladies of France, Germany or Italy whose merit equalled or perhaps surpassed that of this Lady thereby being entitled to take advantage of it. But matter for matter, as Mr Bayle needs both time and effort to examine any given point, I don't doubt that he will be disposed to give preference to what is most important.
     As one who puts high store on mathematics and the experiments of physics, I very much share his view that mathematicians or pure physicists who ignore and despise all other kinds of knowledge are wrong to do so.10 We know the reproach, however unjust, that Scaliger made to Clavius. And however great my esteem for Father Malebranche, I cannot approve what he said in some passages of his Recherche against critics and eastern languages.11 I am certain that these judgements of Cartesians have caused the Bishop of Avranches to take up arms against them and have annoyed other learned men.12 Each kind of knowledge has its value. One should not despite anything. I value everything that draws us away from ignorance. It is good that the soil of the land of the Republic of Letters is well-cultivated everywhere. And I hold that Mr Bayle would not oblige us less in the execution of this great design than if he continued to offer the fine thoughts that clearly he has on philosophy and other matters, as he could embed them there when the opportunity arises.


1. Pierre Bayle, Projet et fragmens d'un dictionnaire critique (Rotterdam: Leers, 1692).
2. See Bayle, "Projet d'un dictionnaire critique à Mr. du Rondel, Professeur aux belles lettres à Maestricht," in Projet et fragmens d'un dictionnaire critique, n.p.
3. Charles Dufresne Du Cange, Glossarium mediae et infimae Latinitatis (Paris, 1678).
4. "task."
5. "next order of business."
6. See Bayle, Projet et fragmens d'un dictionnaire critique, 1-39.
7. "the most experienced judge of form."
8. "patronage rights."
9. See Bayle, Projet et fragmens d'un dictionnaire critique, 353-361.
10. See Bayle, "Projet d'un dictionnaire critique à Mr. du Rondel," n.p.
11. "How is it that there are people who spend their entire lives reading the Rabbis and other corrupt books written in foreign, obscure languages by authors with neither taste nor intelligence, unless it is because they are persuaded that knowing oriental languages places them in a greater and more elevated position than those ignorant of them? And what can support them in their thankless, disagreeable, difficult, and useless work if it is not the hope of some elevation and the sight of some vain grandeur? Indeed, we look at them as rare men; we compliment them on their profound erudition; we listen to them more willingly than to others; and although it can be said that they are usually the least judicious of men (as would be the case if only because they spend their entire lives in such a useless task, which can make them neither wiser nor happier), nevertheless they are imagined to be more intelligent and judicious than other people. Because they are more knowledgeable about the origin of words, we let ourselves be persuaded that they are learned in the nature of things." Nicolas Malebrance, The Search After Truth, trans. Thomas M. Lennon and Paul J. Olscamp (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 295.
12. The Bishop of Avranches at the time was Pierre-Daniel Huet (1630-1721); Leibniz is likely thinking of Huet's book Censura philosophiae cartesianae (1690); English translation: Against Cartesian Philosophy, trans. Thomas M. Lennon (Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 2003).

© Lloyd Strickland 2016