Ernest Renan - Encyclopedia

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ERNEST RENAN (1823-1892), French philosopher and Orientalist, was born on the 27th of February 1823 at Treguier. His father's people were of the fisher-clan of Renans or Ronans; his grandfather, having made a small fortune by his fishing smack, bought a house at Treguier and settled there, and his father, captain of a small cutter and an ardent Republican, married the daughter of Royalist trading-folk from the neighbouring town of Lannion. All his life Renan was divided between his father's and his mother's political beliefs. He was only five years old when his father died, and his sister Henriette, twelve years older than Ernest, a girl of remarkable character, was henceforth morally the head of the household. Having in vain attempted to keep a school for girls at Treguier, she left her native place and went to Paris as teacher in a young ladies' boarding-school. Ernest meanwhile was educated in the ecclesiastical seminary of his native place. His good-conduct notes for this period describe him as "docile, patient, diligent, painstaking, thorough." We do not hear that he was brilliant, but the priests cared little for such qualities. While the priests were grounding him in mathematics and Latin, his mother completed his education. She was only half a Breton. Her paternal ancestors came from Bordeaux, and Renan used to say that in his own nature the Gascon and the Breton were constantly at odds.

In the summer of 1838 Renan carried off all the prizes at the college of Treguier. His sister in Paris told the doctor of the school in which she taught about the success of her brother, and he carried the news to F. A. P. Dupanloup, then engaged in Organizing the ecclesiastical college of St Nicholas du Chardonnet, a school in which the young Catholic nobility and the most gifted pupils of the Catholic seminaries were to be educated together, with a view to cementing the bond between the aristocracy and the priesthood. Dupanloup sent for Renan at once. He was fifteen and a half. He had never been outside his Breton province. "I learned with stupor that knowledge was not a privilege of the church. .. I awoke to the meaning of the words talent, fame, celebrity." Above all, religion seemed to him wholly different in Treguier and in Paris. The superficial, brilliant, pseudo-scientific Catholicism of the capital did not satisfy Renan, who had accepted the austere faith of his Breton masters.

In 1840 Renan left St Nicholas to study philosophy at the seminary of Issy. He entered with a passion for Catholic scholasticism. The rhetoric of St Nicholas had wearied him, and his serious intelligence hoped to satisfy itself with the vast and solid material of Catholic theology. Reid and Malebranche first attracted him among the philosophers, and after these he turned to Hegel, Kant and Herder. Renan began to perceive the essential contradiction between the metaphysics which he studied and the faith that he professed, but an appetite for truths that can be verified restrained his scepticism. "Philosophy excites and only half satisfies the appetite for truth; I. am eager for mathematics," he wrote to his sister Henriette. Henriette had accepted in the family of Count Zamoyski an engagement more lucrative than her former place. She exercised the strongest influence over her brother, and her published letters reveal a mind almost equal, a moral nature superior, to his own.

It was not mathematics but philology which was to settle the gathering doubts of Ernest Renan. His course completed at Issy, he entered the college of St Sulpice in order to take his degree in philology prior to entering the church; and here he began the study of Hebrew. He saw that the second part of Isaiah differs from the first not only in style but in date; that the grammar and the history of the Pentateuch are posterior to the time of Moses; that the book of Daniel is clearly apocryphal. It followed from his training that, if you admit one error in a revealed text, you incriminate the whole. Secretly, Renan felt himself cut off from the communion of saints, and yet with his whole heart he desired to live the life of a Catholic priest Hence a struggle between vocation and conviction; owing to Henriette, conviction gained the day. In October 1845 Renan left the seminary of St Sulpice for Stavistas, a lay college of the Oratorians. Finding himself even there too much under the domination of the church, a few weeks later he reluctantly broke the last tie which bound him to the religious life and entered M. Crouzet's school for boys as an usher.

It is always dangerous to educate a really great mind in only one order of truth. Renan, brought up by priests in a world ruled by authority and curious only of feeling and opinion, was to accept the scientific ideal with an extraordinary expansion of all his faculties. He was henceforth ravished by the splendour of the cosmos. At the end of his life he wrote of Amiel, "The man who has time to keep a private diary has never understood the immensity of the universe." The certitudes of physical and natural science were revealed to Renan in 1846 by the chemist Marcellin Berthelot, then a boy of eighteen, his pupil at M. Crouzet's school. To the day of Renan's death their friendship continued. Renan was occupied as usher only in the evenings. In the daytime he continued his researches in Semitic philology. In 1847 he obtained the Prix Volney - one of the principal distinctions awarded by the Academy of Inscriptions - for the manuscript of his "General History of Semitic Languages." In 1847 he took his degree as Agrege de Philosophie; that is to say, fellow of the university, and was offered a place as master in the lycee of Vendome. In 1848 a small temporary appointment to the lycee of Versailles permitted him to return to the capital and resume his studies.

The revolution of 1848 aroused in Renan that side of him which loved the priesthood because "the priest lives for his fellows." He for the first time confronted the problems of Democracy. The result was an immense volume, The Future of Science, which remained in manuscript until 1890. L'Avenir de la science is an attempt to conciliate the privileges of a necessary elite with the diffusion of the greatest good of the greatest number. The difficulty haunted Renan throughout his life. By the time he had finished his elaborate scheme for regenerating society by means of a devoted aristocracy of knowledge, and the diffusion of culture, the year 1848 was past, and with it his fever of Democracy. In 1849 the French government sent him to Italy on a scientific mission. He remained eight months abroad, during which he forgot his anxiety about the toilers' lot. Hitherto he had known nothing of art. In Italy the artist in him awoke and triumphed over the savant and the reformer. On his return to Paris Renan lived with his sister Henriette. A small post at the National Library, together with his sister's savings, furnished him with the means of livelihood. In the evenings he wrote for the Revue des deux mondes and the Debats the exquisite essays which appeared in 1857 and 1859 under the titles Etudes d'histoire religieuse and Essais de morale et de critique. In 1852 his book on Averroes had brought him not only his doctor's degree, but his first reputation as a thinker. In his two volumes of essays Renan shows himself a Liberal, but no longer a Democrat. Nothing, according to his philosophy, is less important than prosperity. The greatest good of the greatest number is a theory as dangerous as it is illusory. Man is not born to be prosperous, but to realize, in a little vanguard of chosen spirits, an ideal superior to the ideal of yesterday. Only the few can attain a complete development. Yet there is a solidarity between the chosen few and the masses which produce them; each has a duty to the other. The acceptance of this duty is the only foundation for a moral and just society The aristocratic idea has seldom been better stated.

The success of the Etudes d'histoire religieuse and the Essais de morale had made the name of Renan known to a cultivated public. While Mademoiselle Renan remained shut up at home copying her brother's manuscripts or compiling material for his work, the young philosopher began to frequent more than one Parisian salon, and especially the studio of Ary Scheffer, at that time a noted social centre. In 1856 he proposed to marry Cornelie Scheffer, the niece and adopted daughter of the great Dutch painter. Not without a struggle Henriette consented not only to the marriage, but to make her home with the young couple, whose housekeeping depended on the sum that she could contribute. The history of this romance has been told by Renan in the memorial essay which he wrote some six years later, entitled Ma Sceur Henriette. His marriage brought much brightness into his life, a naturalness into his style and a greater attention to the picturesque. He did not forsake his studies in Semitic philology, and in 1859 appeared his translation of the Book of Job with an introductory essay, followed in 1859 by the Song of Songs. Renan was now a candidate for the chair of Hebrew and Chaldaic languages at the College de France, which he had desired since first he studied Hebrew at the seminary of St Sulpice. The death of the scholar Quatremere had left this post vacant in 1857. No one in France save Renan was capable of filling it. The Catholic party, upheld by the empress, would not appoint an unfrocked seminarist, a notorious heretic, to a chair of Biblical exegesis. Yet the emperor wished to conciliate Ernest Renan. He offered to send the young scholar on an archaeological mission to Phoenicia. Renan immediately accepted. Leaving his wife at home with their baby son, Renan left France, accompanied by his sister, in the summer of 1860. Madame Renan joined them in January 1861, returning to France in July. The mission proved fruitful in Phoenician inscriptions which Renan published in his Mission de Phenicie. They form the base of that Corpus Inscriptionum Semiticarum on which he used in later years to declare that he founded his claim to remembrance. He wished to complete his exploration of the upper range of Lebanon; he remained, therefore, with Henriette to affront the dangerous miasma of a Syrian autumn. At Amshit, near Byblos, Henriette Renan died of intermittent fever on the 24th of September 1861. Her brother, himself at death's door, was carried unconscious on board a ship waiting in harbour and bound for France. The sea air revived him, but he reached France broken apparently in heart and health. His sister in her last days had entreated him not to give up his candidature for the chair of Hebrew, and on the 11th of January 1862 the Minister of Public Instruction ratified Renan's election to the post. But his opening lecture, in which, amid the applause of the students, Renan declared Jesus Christ "an incomparable Man," alarmed the Catholic party. Renan's lectures were pronounced a disturbance of the public peace, and he was suspended. On the 2nd of June 1864, on opening the newspaper, Renan saw that he had been transferred from the chair of Hebrew at the College of France to the post of sublibrarian at the National Library. He wrote to the Minister of Public Instruction: "Pecunia tua tecum sit!" He refused the new position, was deprived of his chair, and henceforth depended solely upon his pen.

Henriette had told him to write the life of Jesus. They had begun it together in Syria, she copying the pages as he wrote them, with a New Testament and a Josephus for all his library. The book bears the mark of its origin - it is filled with the atmosphere of the East. It is the work of a man familiar with the Bible and theology, and no less acquainted with the inscriptions, monuments, types and landscapes of Syria. But it is scarcely the work of a great scholar: Renan's debt to the school of Tubingen has been exaggerated, in so far as regards the Life of Jesus. The book appeared on the 23rd of June 1863; before November sixty thousand copies of it were in circulation. Renan still used his literary gifts to pursue a scientific ideal. In the days when he had composed his huge, immature treatise on the Future of Science, he had written: "I envy the man who shall evoke from the past the origins of Christianity. Such a writer would compose the most important book of the century." He set to work to realize this project, and produced the Apostles in 1866, a.nd St Paul in 1869, after having visited Asia Minor with his wife, where he studied the scenes of the labours of St Paul as minutely as in 1861 he had observed the material surroundings of the life of Jesus.

Renan was not only a scholar. In St Paul, as in the Apostles, he shows his concern with the larger social life, his sense of fraternity, and a revival of the democratic sentiment which had inspired L'Avenir de la science. In 1869 he presented himself as the candidate of the liberal opposition at the parliamentary election for Meaux. While his temper had become less aristocratic, his Liberalism had grown more tolerant. On the eve of its dissolution Renan was half prepared to accept the Empire, and, had he been elected to the Chamber of Deputies, he would have joined the group of l'Empire liberal. But he was not elected. A year later war was declared with Germany, the Empire fell, and Napoleon III. went into exile. The Franco-German War was a turning-point in Renan's history. Germany had always been to him the asylum of thought and disinterested science. Now he saw the land of his ideal destroy and ruin the land of his birth; he beheld the German no longer as a priest, but as an invader. His heart turned to France. In La Reforme intellectuelle et morale (1871) he endeavoured at least to bind her wounds, to safeguard her future. Yet he was still under the influence of Germany. The ideal and the discipline which he proposed to his defeated country were those of her conqueror - a feudal society, a monarchical government, an elite, which the rest of the nation exists merely to support and nourish; an ideal of honour and duty imposed by a chosen few on the recalcitrant and subject multitude. The errors of the Commune confirmed Renan in this reaction. At the same time the irony always perceptible in his work grows more bitter. His Dialogues philosophiques, written in 1871, his Ecclesiastes (1882) and his Antichrist (1876) (the fourth volume of the Origins of Christianity, dealing with the reign of Nero) are incomparable in their literary genius, but they are examples of a disenchanted and sceptical temper. He had vainly tried to make his country follow his precepts. He resigned himself to watch her drift towards perdition. The progress of events showed him, on the contrary, a France which every day left a little stronger, and he aroused himself from his disbelieving, disillusioned mood. and observed with genuine interest the struggle for justice and liberty of a democratic society. For his mind was the broadest of the age. The fifth and sixth volumes of the Origins of Christianity (the Christian Church and Marcus Aurelius) show him reconciled with democracy, confident in the gradual ascent of man, aware that the greatest catastrophes do not really interrupt the sure if imperceptible progress of the world - reconciled also in some measure, if not with the truths, at least with the moral beauties of Catholicism, and with the remembrance of his pious youth.

On the threshold of old age the philosopher cast a glance at the days of his childhood. He was nearly sixty when, in 1883, he published those Souvenirs d'enfance et de jeunesse which, after the Life of Jesus, are the work by which he is chiefly known. They possess that lyric note of personal utterance which the public prizes in a man already famous. They showed the blase modern reader that a world no less poetic, no less primitive than that of the Origins of Christianity exists, or still existed within living memory, on the north-western coast of France. They have the Geltic magic of ancient romance and the simplicity, the naturalness, the veracity which the 19th century prized so highly. But his Ecclesiastes, published a few months earlier, his Drames philosophiques, collected in 1888, give a more adequate image of his fastidious critical, disenchanted, yet not unhopeful spirit. These books are often bitter and melancholy, yet not destitute of optimism. They show the attitude towards uncultured Socialism of a philosopher liberal by conviction, by temperament an aristocrat. We learn in them how Caliban (democracy), the mindless brute, educated to his own responsibility, makes after all an adequate ruler; how Prospero (the aristocratic principle, or, if we will, the mind) accepts his dethronement for the sake of greater liberty in the intellectual world, since Caliban proves an effective policeman, and leaves his superiors a free hand in the laboratory; how Ariel (the religious principle) acquires a firmer hold on life, and no longer gives up the ghost at the faintest hint of change. Indeed, Ariel flourishes in the service of Prospero under the external government of the many-headed brute. For the one thing needful is not destined to succumb. Religion and knowledge are as imperishable as the world they dignify. Thus out of the depths rises unvanquished the essential idealism of Ernest Renan.

Renan was a great worker. At sixty years of age, having finished the Origins of Christianity, he began his History of Israel, based on a lifelong study of the Old Testament and on the Corpus Inscriptionum Semiticarum, published by the Academic des Inscriptions under Renan's direction from the year 1881 till the end of his life. The first volume of the History of Israel appeared in 1887, the third and finest volume in 1891, the last two only after the historian's decease. As a history of facts and theories the book has many faults; as an essay on the evolution of the religious idea it is (despite some passages of frivolity, irony, or incoherence) of extraordinary importance; as a reflection of the mind of Ernest Renan it is the most lifelike of images. In a volume of collected essays, Feuilles detachees, published also in 1891, we find the same mental attitude, an affirmation of the necessity of piety independent of dogma. On the 12th of October 1892 he died after a few days' illness. In his last years he received many marks of honour, being made an administrator of the College de France and grand officer of the Legion of Honour. Two volumes of the History of Israel, his correspondence with his sister Henriette, his Letters to NI. Berthelot, and the History of the Religious Policy of Philippe-leBel, which he wrote in the years immediately before his marriage, all appeared during the last eight years of the 19th century.

See Desportes and Bournand, E. Renan, sa vie et son oeuvre (1892); E. Grant Duff, Ernest Renan, in memoriam (1893); Seailles, E. Renan, essai de biographic psychologique (1894); G. Monod, Les maitres de l'histoire (1894); Allier, La Philosophie d'E. Renan (1895); M. J. Darmesteter, La vie de E. R. (1898); Platzhoff, E. Renan, ein Lebensbild 0900); Brauer, Philosophy of Ernest Renan (1904); W. Barry, Renan (1905); Sorel, Le Systeme historique de R. (1905-1906).

(A. M. F. D.; X.)

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