Rationality and the Origins of Myth: Bayle, Fontanelle, and Toland

Pierre Bayle, Bernard de Fontanelle, and John Toland; all images in the public domain or free for noncommercial use

This is an extended version of a blog post I recently wrote for my seminar class Myth and the History of Scholarship in Early Modern Europe. It’s a more formal style than I generally like to write in since it’s for an academic blog, but I thought I’d share it with you just in case you’re interested in what I’ve been working on at the University of Edinburgh lately ~ Amy

From the ancient philosophers of Greece and Rome to the European Renaissance to early modern Europe in the Age of Discovery, thinkers and scholars attempted to make sense of mythology and the multiplicity of belief from ancient to modern times, in light of their own understanding of the nature of God and the workings of the universe. The Renaissance saw the humanistic attempt to understand mythology as allegories, repositories of ancient wisdom in fable form which conveyed essential religious truths to those discerning enough to perceive them. Then, missionaries to the New World and theologians wrestled with the fact that vast numbers of human beings had no knowledge of the biblical God or of Jesus Christ. They attempted to reconcile this with their beliefs about God’s justice and mercy by recasting pagan myths as expressions of natural theology.

The years leading up to the Enlightenment saw another significant shift in ways of thinking, a rationalist approach that we now associate with the rise of skepticism and the scientific method. In the decades straddling the turn of the 17th century, Huguenot scholar Pierre Bayle, French scientist and writer Bernard de Fontanelle, and British freethinker and religious critic John Toland offered their own critical approaches to the myths of the ancients and of the New World.

‘…People began, in various countries, to write histories in a more reasonable manner and generally with more verisimilitude. So no new fables appear; people are satisfied with preserving the old ones. But can this ever stop those who are infatuated with antiquity? They imagine to themselves that under the fables are hidden secrets of the physical and moral world (Fontanelle 18)’

In On the Origin of Fables, Pierre Bayle (1647–1706) applies ‘natural reason’ and Aristotelian method to myths and ancient philosophy to determine whether they are worthy of belief or useful in promoting a rational understanding of God and the world. Bayle’s approach is to offer critical examinations of particular myths. Through these examples, Bayle intends to demonstrate that mythology is not a vessel of truth, allegorical or otherwise. For one, he considers the ancient Greek philosopher Anaximenes’ idea that the gods were produced by the air, which is the primary and original cause of everything. Bayle rejects this idea as absurd because natural reason doesn’t allow us to believe that a thing’s efficient cause (Aristotle’s term for that which is responsible for another thing’s state of being) to be inferior to that which gave rise to it (Bayle 110). Even more ridiculous, for Bayle, is the idea that a non-thinking thing like air could give rise to a thinking thing like a god (p 113). (I suspect that Bayle would have little use for the theory of evolution.) Other myths such as the birth of Venus, who arose from the foam created when Saturn cut off his father Chaos’ genitalia and threw them into the sea, or that  thunder and lightning is caused by Jupiter’s hurling thunderbolts to earth, aren’t only immoral and brutish, but entirely useless for understanding the rationality of the universe.

Bernard de Fontenelle (1657-1757) sees mythology as the product of the childishness of the human mind at the dawn of reason. When humans observed some amazing or unexpected thing that they couldn’t explain, they naturally embellished it a little so that they could (Fontanelle 11). These embellishments often consisted of positing beings with human-like capacities causing the phenomenon in some recognizable way. Fontanelle, like Bayle, uses the example of thunder and lightning, a mysterious phenomenon that could be explained by imagining a being very like a human but more powerful, who throws arrows of fire like humans do but much larger ones from higher up (p 11-12). He also uses the example of rivers: they originate somewhere, so why not from pitchers like these we use to make water flow? (p 11) But to make rivers, the being(s) who pour the pitchers must have much larger ones, with added power that can keep them flowing plentifully and with force. With each subsequent retelling of these stories, they took on more and more fantastic elements they passed from one person to the other (Consider Michel de Montaigne’s passage about un/reliable testimony in his essay ‘Of Cannibals’), resulting in elaborate and fantastic myths.

But Fontanelle doesn’t judge these almost accidental mythmakers harshly; rather, he makes an interesting and astute observation: it’s actually harder to adhere strictly to the truth than to embellish a tale, especially when it’s about something exciting. It’s harder because 1) ‘our imagination gets heated up with its subject’ (Fontanelle 11) and begins to elaborate the tale all on its own and 2) the more marvelous details you add, the more interest, encouragement, and admiration you arouse in your audience. But though rationality is hard and the imagination is lively (p 15), Fontanelle insists that it’s still essential that we resist ignorance. David Hume would later elaborate on Fontanelle’s idea about myths and miracles, making it one of the centerpieces of his skeptical philosophy in his Enquiry concerning Human Understanding.

John Toland’s (1670-1722) theory also cites human ignorance and frailty in the origins of myth, but he offers a less general account. In his view, myths spring from the honor paid to the dead. Worship of the gods is an extension of the respect, fear, and supplication of powerful rulers, warriors, magicians, and so on (Toland 72). He accepts Euhemerus’ idea that the gods of myth refer to real people but that, over time, their origins were forgotten (p 85). Toland observes that the honor paid to the gods closely resemble the honors paid to dead heroes and princes, so he postulates a common origin for these practices.

Toland further explains that the gods, based on exceptional humans now dead, are also based on human ideas and virtues (p 88). Here, both Toland and Bayle reflect the ancient philosopher Xenophanes, who argues that all gods are devised to resemble their creators. If animals had gods too, they would look, act, and have the same mental features as those animals—at least, the strongest, best, most admired animals among them. Fontanelle also takes a Xenophanean view in his description of how the gods evolve over time: the gods of the earliest, most primitive myths were as irrational, lustful, and brutal as the people themselves. But just as societies became more civilized, more rational, and more virtuous, so did the gods (Fontanelle 13).

Fontanelle, Toland, and Bayle all take a rationalist approach to the subject of myth, as they do to the sciences and all other areas of inquiry. All myths and idolatry are born from irrationality, and if we are to understand the world as it really is, as a rational place created and designed by a rational God, it’s important to demonstrate the irrationality of the myths and remove their power to promote irrationality in the general public. This will result in a more rational, moral, and free society.

Bayle, again, takes the approach of examining particular examples of myths to show that their origins are irrational and that they cannot, even as allegory, be seen to impart anything good or true, or to promote understanding in any way. He continues his exploration of ancient ideas about air, this time the myth that equates the goddess Juno with the air. Despite all attempts to understand this myth as a way of understanding a truth about the workings of the world, it does nothing but confuse and confound. Bayle again invokes Aristotle, who says that if it’s a thinking being, it must have a soul, and if that being is a part of nature and has a soul, it must be an animal. Therefore, if Juno is the air, she’s a sort of animal being constantly being torn and wounded by things passing through her, which he offers as such a patent absurdity that the myth couldn’t possibly promote a rational understanding of nature. (p 117-118)

Fontanelle argues that his time was one of the most intellectually vigorous (p 13), no doubt because he saw it as an age of rationality. He has a progressive view of the human capability for rationality (p 17), and sees it as the way of the world that all human societies will become more rational over time, just as the Greeks did, and just as he suspects that the Native Americans encountered by the Spanish would if given the time to develop their capabilities (p 16). This is consistent with Fontanelle’s view that creation itself is a rational system. It would make sense, then, that the more human beings come to understand it, the more rational they become as well. That’s why it’s a mistake to perpetuate irrationality by continuing to teach the myths through the arts such as poetry, fine arts, and theater (p 17).

Toland argues that a multiplicity of gods and objects of worship, which is characteristic of the less rational belief systems, is correlated with irrationality, less freedom, and more autocracy. The more gods a society creates, the more autocratic and the less free and rational the society – (Toland 98) (Noted scientist and religious skeptic Richard Dawkins would likely point out that in that case, the most free, rational, and democratic societies would have no gods at all.)

‘So [the well-meaning Philosophers] proceeded to explain away the rest of the Gods; and, as Allegorys are as fruitful as our Imaginations, scarce any two Authors cou’d wholly agree in their Opinions. But supposing the Truth of the matter had bin as any or all of ’em wou’d have it, yet their Religion was not a whit the better, and deserv’d to be abolished; since, what ever were the Speculations of a few among the Learned, ‘cis evident that the Vulgar took all these to be very real Gods, of whom they stood in mighty fear, and to whom they paid Divine Adoration…’ (p 122)

So even if the myths could be interpreted as allegories by the learned, their dissemination spread ignorance and irrationality and so did far more harm than good.

‘But if any shou’d wonder how Men cou’d leave the direct and easy Path of Reason ‘ton wander in such inextricable Mazes, let him but consider how in very many and considerable Regions the plain Institution of Jesus Christ cou’d degenerate into the most absurd Doctrins, unintelligible Jargon, ridiculous Practices, and inexplicable Mysterys…’ (p 129)

Bayle goes further than Toland, and believes that myth not only correlates with barbarous societies, but that they promote acceptance of bad behavior. The myth of Jupiter, for example, deifies a being guilty of just about every crime you can think of: murder, rape, incest, lies, and cruelty of every sort (Bayle 107). Fortunately, Bayle observes, most people behave better than the gods of mythology, an observation that extends beyond his close examination of many mythological beliefs.

Fontanelle also observes that belief does not necessarily inform moral convictions or behavior; in fact, they seem to be quite separate:

‘What is strange is that Christians, whose system of religion is so pure, yield almost nothing to the gentiles in respect to engaging in vices. It is a mistake to believe that the moral practice of a religion corresponds to the doctrines of its confession of faith. (p 107)’

People, then as now it seems, accept those religious beliefs that accord with their own principles and moral characters more than the other way around.

~ Thanks to Dr. Felicity Green for inspiration and insight


Bayle, Pierre, ‘Jupiter’, in Historical-Critical Dictionary: Selections [1697], trans. Richard Popkin (Indianapolis, 1991), pp. 107-119.

‘Bernard Le Bovier, sieur de Fontenelle.’ (2017, 25 January), In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from www.britannica.com/biography/Bernard-Le-Bovier-sieur-de-Fontenelle  ; accessed 09 November, 2017.

Falcon, Andrea, “Aristotle on Causality”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). Retrieved from https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2015/entries/aristotle-causality/ ; accessed 09 November, 2017.

Fontenelle, Bernard de, De l’origine des fables [wr. c.1691-99, pub. 1724]. English trans. Of the Origin of Fables by Burton Feldman and Robert D. Richardson, The Rise of Modern Mythology 1680-1860 (Indiana, 1972), pp. 10-18.

‘John Toland’. (2017, 17 August), In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from www.britannica.com/biography/John-Toland ; accessed 09 November, 2017.

Lennon, Thomas M. and Hickson, Michael, ‘Pierre Bayle’, In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2014/entries/bayle/ ; accessed 09 November 2017

Toland, John, Letters to Serena (London, 1704), part III

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O.P. Recommends: Is the Pope Catholic? By BBC’s The Inquiry

Pope Francis among the people at St. Peter’s Square, May 12, 2013 (cropped), public domain via Wikimedia Commons

This podcast episode, presented by Ruth Alexander, opens with a discussion of a letter to Pope Francis dated July 16th, 2017. Titled Correctio filialis de haeresibus propagatis, it was composed and signed by 62 conservative and traditionalist Catholic clergy and theologians. In it, they accuse Pope Francis of ‘the propagation of heresies.’ It’s a response to Pope Francis’ public re-consideration of the Catholic Church’s prohibition of the sacrament of Communion to divorced and remarried people. Since this is one of the most sacred and essential practices of the Catholic religion, it’s a serious matter for excluded believers, and it may drive many people away who might otherwise embrace the Catholic faith.  The podcast episode continues with guests discussing their reasons for supporting one side of the debate or the other, and explores some of the relevant history and issues surrounding this controversy.

To many, Pope Francis’ open-mindedness to changing this teaching is a very welcome development, signaling that the Catholic Church remains a relevant and welcoming faith in the modern world; to others, it represents a betrayal of the very idea of what a true and eternal religion is. It’s a fascinating story to consider for anyone interested in the nature of religious belief and what it means to people, and in the history of religion in general.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!