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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Great Thing About Family Is….

I belong to a large family. Like, very large. On my mom’s side, I am one among a pool of 18 first cousins, a number not too out of the ordinary, but last I heard, I am one of a whopping 70 or so cousins on my dad’s side (If that number is out of date, dear relation who may be reading this, let me know and I’ll update!) I have twenty-one (living) aunts and uncles, not including my dad and mom, and when it comes to my siblings’ and my cousins’ kids, their spouses, the great aunts and uncles and their families… you can imagine the sheer numbers of people I count among my relations.

And yet, I actually do know a substantial majority of them, though not necessarily well. But a great many of them I do know well.

Here’s another thing: I am very different than many, probably even most, members of my family, in temperament, habits, and beliefs, as is the case with most extended families, I expect. I even find many of the beliefs and opinions held by some of my relations distasteful or sometimes even downright abhorrent, as I suspect they do mine.

Regardless of this, I love and respect almost all of them, and I really like to spend time with them when I can.

People sometimes find it necessary to distance themselves from family for their own protection, to preserve their mental health and peace of mind, for example, or because their family members’s beliefs cause them to reject their atheist, or gay, or interracially-married, or religiously converted, or otherwise non-conformist relations. Some people abuse their family members, too, sometimes in most horrific ways. Every situation is different, and of course, many people really should sever ties when the relationships they have to family is destructive.

But I think it’s so important to preserve family relations if you can, because what they have to offer can be of immeasurable value.

First, there’s the wealth of love and support that comes with family. You acquire a posse of friends and allies just through the simple fact of being born. And as you go through life, you grow together with them, and get to share in their history, in a way unique from any other kind of relationship. A member of your family can understand you in a particular way that few others can, by virtue of each of you accompanying another as each grow and change. You, in turn, can have that particularly intimate sort of insight into what makes them tick.

But secondly, and I think at least as importantly, you have the opportunity to keep your mind that much more able to imagine and to understand other ways of seeing the world. For example, here in the Bay Area where I’ve made my home for well over a decade now, I live in a liberal, artsy, worldly, well-read, foodie, moderately out-doorsy, rather cosmopolitan ‘bubble’. My friends would all be readily characterized as such, and I love these things about them, as we share so many points of view in common, and enjoy doing and talking about the same sorts of things.

But there are other ways of experiencing the world,  and as we share our city, state, country, and planet, and therefore in many ways our fate with very different kinds of people, it’s imperative that we all be able to talk to each other. But how to do overcome these often vast differences, and bridge that gap, in order to be able to understand how others think? This problem is illustrated most strikingly in our public discourse, where in the media and on internet forums, citizens, pundits, and politicians shout past each other, and instead of convincing their ideological opponents, almost always just end up ‘singing to the choir’.

And that’s where the bonds of family loyalty and shared history can come in, to help you increase your patience and expand your understanding. Family is one of the few spheres where very different people can come together in mutual love and respect, overcoming their differences in order to preserve something even more important than simply agreeing with one another about everything.

I consider my dad, for example, the most important moral influence in my life, though the few times we’ve specifically talked about the issue, we find we have very different accounts about the nature and origin of morality. Yet, I find he embodies that which morality ultimately is for, and how it molds a genuinely, habitually virtuous person that I would recommend everyone emulate and admire.

Another example: one of my uncles, dear that he is, calls me regularly in an effort to convert me back to the Catholic religion of my upbringing. (He was my confirmation sponsor, a Catholic rite of passage somewhat like a Bat Mitzvah, and he takes it very seriously, though I’ve assured him time and again that I consider him released from that obligation: I was far too young, and lacked the relevant information, to make such a vow of fealty to any religion.) We end up having many frank, lengthy discussions and debates on all manner of religious, philosophical, and political topics, and rarely agree on anything beyond the most basic moral principles and standards of reason. But we end every conversation, no matter how heated it had gotten, on the friendliest of terms, and say good-bye amidst good-humored banter.

Most of the time, it feels as if there’s just not enough time and energy to go around spending a lot of time with people that don’t share many of your interests and beliefs. But without family, it’s unlikely that many of us would have the opportunity to really get to know people that are substantially different than we are. I’ve spent countless happy and enriching hours in friendly companionship eating, hiking, swimming, playing sports and games, and just chatting with relatives with whom I have few things even common, who disagree with me philosophically, politically, and aesthetically about so many things, and I with them. But ultimately, none of that mattered at the time: we were sharing time as fellow beings sharing a kind of close human relationship that could transcend all of that.

Funnily enough, that same family loyalty that historically has led so so much tribalism and in-group, insular thinking, can also be among the most important avenues for opening us up to a more tolerant, cosmopolitan mindset, so long as we have family that are open to maintaining a system of love and support while being very different in habit and thought. So if you can, stay close to family, keep the lines of communication open. You may very well become a much bigger person as a result.

My family has done so much for me in that line, even if unintentionally, and for that, among so many other things, I thank them, and owe them a great debt.

Review / critique: Frans De Waal’s The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates

I’ve just finished Frans De Waal’s excellent new book, which is a combination of a popular science exploration of primatology and the origins of human morality, and a critique of the ‘New Atheist’ movement. De Waal, a nonbeliever himself (as a scientist, he finds the question of whether or not God exists ‘uninteresting‘), nevertheless finds the confrontational style of the New Atheist movement ill conceived, counterproductive, and probably futile.

Anchoring the themes of his book is a series of reflections on Hieronymus Bosch’s famous triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights. Traditional interpretations of the painting, De Waal writes, are generally based on the view that human beings, ever since the ‘fall’ of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, are naturally wicked, prone to cruel and hateful behavior, and it’s only by straining hard against our sinful nature that human beings can hope for redemption by adhering the moral code provided by God through religion .

De Waal has a different interpretation, seeing the painting thorugh the lens of his own understanding of human nature. His lifelong study of primate behavior, especially of bonobos and chimpanzees, reveal a tendency to prosocial behavior that strongly resembles human morality in many important ways. De Waal concludes that not only does morality predate religion, since it’s rooted in the same social instincts we share with our cousins the great apes (as well as other social animals), but it’s most accurately viewed as a key component of human nature. Based on modern findings of human psychology and evolutionary biology, ‘It is now widely assumed that we are designed in body and mind to live together and to take care of each other, and that humans have a natural tendency to judge others in moral terms. Instead of being a thin veneer, morality comes from within.’ (De Waal, p 42).

Image Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_Garden_of_Earthly_Delights_by_Bosch_High_Resolution.jpgBosch’s painting, De Waal thinks, actually reveals his humanism, the idea that the human race is naturally good and worthy of admiration in it own right. The figures frolicking in the garden in the center panel enjoy the best that the world has to offer, especially the joys of one another’s company. The figures being punished in the hell of the right panel, revealingly, are not being punished for sins against religion. Rather, they have trangressed the moral laws pertaining to just and fair treatment of one another, such sins as greed, gambling, and cheating, and those pertaining to the proper care and comportment of our own bodies, such as gluttony and drunkenness.

In this, De Waal agrees with the bonobo (in this book, the bonobo represents the naturally moral side of all social creatures), the humanist Bosch, and the atheist: human beings are moral beings, and ‘sins’ are those tendencies and behaviors which lead individuals to act against the interests and moral codes of the group. He provides a wealth of evidence, from his own years of fieldwork, experimentation, and research, that prosociality and morality are natural phenomena without which human beings and their social cousins would fail as a species. Morality originates as an evolutionary adaptation, giving us the ability to transcend our individual limitations, to thrive as a species through cooperation, sharing, and mutual protection.

However, De Waal has found himself disturbed by the militancy (as he sees it) of the so-called New Atheist movement: their rhetoric that disparages religion, calling for its immediate demise, ridiculing it as entirely outdated, useless, stupid, and destructive, and for their ‘dogmatic’ God-denial, and their tactics of anti-religious propaganda and political activism. He quotes A.C. Grayling, who compares militant atheism to ‘sleeping furiously’, asking: ‘What does atheism have to offer that’s worth fighting for?’ (De Waal, p. 84) He finds that the New Atheist movement shares this with religious fundamentalists: they both misunderstand the origins and nature of religion, which originated and still functions as an evolutionarily useful social tool, encoding and helping to enforce moral behavior.

I found De Waal’s book a refreshing and entirely approachable summary of the best of our current knowledge of human psychology, evolutionary biology, and animal behavior. I also admire the evidence of his knowledge and understanding of philosophy, which he applies to and compares with the findings in his own field. He admires Hume, the prosocial moral philosopher, and both agrees and disagrees with Kant: the moral law is indeed within, as Kant says, but altruism is not confined to those behaviors that are devoid entirely of self-interest, as Kant defines it. It’s actually a good thing that altruism, though it does carry a personal cost, also benefits the altruist, as De Waal sees it: it firmly grounds altruism as a natural product of a human nature that is more social than selfish. (This is not to say that human nature is not selfish as well. It’s rather that we have methods of making sure selfishness does not run amuk and result in mutually assured self-destruction of the human species.) All in all, De Waal offers a compelling and persuasive view of the natural origins of morality and that the good rules human nature more than the bad.

It’s De Waal’s critique of the New Atheist movement and of atheists overall with which I find myself only in partial agreement. I do agree that too many prominent atheists refuse to publicly acknowledge that religion appears to be a product of natural adaptations, and a historically (and prehistorically) useful one at that. Many other atheists, however, do acknowledge this, notably Daniel Dennett, who De Waal sometimes lumps in with the New Atheists, though he does give Dennett some credit for his view of religion as a natural phenomenon. (De Waal, p 94) I also agree with him that an overly confrontational attack-oriented approach is unlikely to be overall as effective as a more humanism-positive, common-ground seeking approach, based on what we know about human psychology and belief formation (Kahneman, Haight, Ariely, and others have done extensive work on this recently; even in antiquity, Aristotle revealed how well he understood this aspect of human psychology).

But contrary to De Waal, I think that atheism, as a movement, does have some important things to offer. When he criticizes atheism as lacking in substance or utility since it’s an ‘anti-‘ stance, he fails to account for the historical abusive and destructive applications of religion. As well as promoting good behavior and bonding within groups, it’s also been used to persecute out-groups of religious minorities and non-believers, to oppress women, children, and the poor, to prop up and protect corrupt regimes and clergy (dictatorships and absolutist monarchs, the sale of undulgences, murderous popes, rapist priests), and as a justification of cruel and oppressive practices (the institution of race-based slavery, the punishment of heretics). There are plenty of ‘anti-‘ groups and ideologies that have plenty to offer precisely because they arise out of opposition to destructive or morally repugnant institutions, belief systems, and natural forces: the abolitionist movement (anti-slavery), the feminist movement (anti-oppression of women), various organizations that combat disease (anti-AIDS, anti-cancer, etc). To ignore what the atheist movement as a whole has to offer is to ignore the history of how and why the atheist movement originated, and that it’s generally united in humanism-derived values and goals (equal social and political rights and protections for non-believers and religious minorities, for example). In his blanket dismissal of atheism as ideologically empty, De Waal fails to adhere to the same standards of applying evidence and history to this issue as he does for the rest of the scientific and philosophical issues he discusses in his otherwise excellent book.

Work Cited:

De Waal, Francis. The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates, 2013.