In terms of science, the comets of 1680 was perhaps the most important ever to appear in the skies. The orbit of it was illustrated in Newton’s Principia of 1687. It was made the object of extensive observation by Royal Society astronomers, like Halley. And it gave rise to various and sundry reports of supernatural phenomena, from hens laying comet shaped eggs to rumors that the world was ending. Sara Schechner’s description of the comets (from Comets, Popular Culture, and the Birth of Modern Cosmology) is still impressively scary:
“In early November of 1680, a comet appeared before sunrise and was sighted heading toward the sun until the end of the month. In mid-December, another comet appeared in the evening sky, heading away from the sun. Its tail was immense, growing to be over seventy degrees long.”
In Mexico city, there were rumors about the resurrection of the dead and processions. Sigüenza y Góngora, the great Mexican humanist and official Cosmographer to New Spain, wrote a book, The Philosophical Manifesto Against Comets, Stripped of their Dominion over the Fearful, to counter-act popular fears about the comet (and three hundred seventeen years later, my friend Miruna Achim wrote her Ph.D dissertation on Sigüenza – and, as she might point out, that Schechner’s book shows no awareness of Sigüenza whatsoever hints at the provincial Eurocentrism that bedevils the history of science).
Pierre Bayle also wrote about the comet. Bayle, like Sigüenza, is writing against superstition as much as he is writing in a scientific manner about celestial phenomena. Thus, Bayle’s Diverse Thoughts on the Comet is more of a philosophical than an astronomical treatise. In it, Bayle devoted a long section on the morals and behavior which might be found in a society of atheists and produced a “paradox” that proved to be important in the history of the liberal tradition. Bayle choses to combat the common idea that an atheist moves from disbelief in God to lewdness, drunkenness and murder. In fact, Bayle thinks it is a mistake to think that atheists would be more prone to murder one another, or less prone to pride themselves on their honor, than Christians. In fact, Bayle claims, the difference between a society of atheists and a society of Christians would be of the same type, with the same variations, as the difference between two societies of Christians. Local customs would make for some differences, but in both, the norms would be as we would expect: a moral code would be followed, as well as a code of honor. His Christian interlocutor might say, “ it is a strange thing that an atheist might live virtuously, he would be a monster who surpassed the forces of nature” – But Bayle points to two pieces of evidence that show that the Christian has misunderstood the atheist. First, there are ancient virtuous sages who were atheists, or, like Epicure, conceived that God did not interfere in the course of the world, while at the same time there are plenty of Christian criminals, of whom the courts are full to overflowing. And second Bayle claims, from the accounts of travelers, that there really are societies of atheists, for instance in Brazil, who were no worse than societies of Christians. In fact, a good deal better.
Why is this? Bayle has several answers. For instance, voluptuaries, who are considered great deniers of God, are misunderstood, according to Bayle. You don’t run after blonds and brunettes, get drunk as often as possible, and seek to kill time with every kind of debauch and at the same time concern yourself with knowing if Descartes were right or wrong in his metaphysical proofs of God. Similarly, the atheists Bayle knows are as lean as Crassius, and spend their time studying, all the better to refute the proofs of the divinity. Beyond this admittedly comic fact lies a more serious one: man does not regulate his conduct by his opinions.
“I conceive that it is a very strange thing that a man may live morally who believes neither in paradise nor hell. But I always return to the fact that man is a certain creature who, with all his reason, does not always act in consequence of his beliefs. Christians have furnished us enough proofs of this.”
Others have too. Stoics act unstoically when they are in pain. Turks, who have a famous belief in fatality, flee danger. “They use their lights and their prudence much as we do.” There are Christians who believe in predestination, and those who don’t: “But in spite of this difference, they govern themselves, one another, in the same fashion, as for what concerns morals. If they differ in some way, this derives from the genius of the nation, and not the genius of the sect.” 
The great explanation, however, lies in the nature of opinion itself. General opinions, according to Bayle, don’t determine behavior. It is particular opinion – and, in particular, self interest – that does.
Vico, in his New Science, notes shrewdly that Bayle has been mislead by his travelers’ tales: those Brazilian Indians, for instance, did have a religion. Vico claims, in fact, that religion is a universal characteristic of human societies, and thus tells us something about the social bond itself. Of course, Vico has turned out to be right, insofar as explorers and priests simply refused to recognize the rituals and narratives of the peoples they encountered as religious. Although that discovery has made it clear that the whole notion that religion depends on an act of belief, as it seems to do in Christianity, or to a lesser extent in Judaism, is not universal to all religions.
But as interesting, to me, is Bayle’s notion that an atheist belief system might even be better, insofar as it would be a general belief in nothing. Thus, the general belief, which Bayle thinks doesn’t have an effect on human behavior in particular, would be supplemented. For, in actuality, Bayle’s belief about the indifference of the general belief system is not completely descriptive. By the very fact that he is writing against superstition, one can conclude that it is Bayle’s logical conclusion that human beings should not be determined in their behaviors by their general beliefs. Unfortunately, in reality, they seem to be.
This is, once again, one of those universals to be in which the seventeenth century is so rich. I think, however, Bayle’s idea is not only important in as much as it makes the case for tolerance of a sort, but also for advancing a notion of human beings as being both individual and vacant – except insofar as particular motives move them – which plays an important role in theorizing the capitalist market.
More about that later.