Ernest Renan (February 28, 1823 – October 12, 1892) was a Breton philosopher and writer, and a spokesman for the religious and intellectual changes which were sweeping Europe during the nineteenth century. Raised as a pious Catholic in a village in Brittany, he found himself unable to reconcile Catholic dogma with the scientific facts which he discovered while studying the Hebrew scriptures. His earliest work, L'Avenir de la science (1890; The Future of Science) emphasized the importance of making a scientific study of the origins of religion. Renan proceeded to conduct two such studies, Histoire des origines du Christianisme (History of the Origins of Christianity, 1866-1881), and Histoire du peuple d'Israël (History of the People of Israel, 1887-1893). Though his methods of historical research were criticized, the ideas influenced and inspired other theologians and scholars. Vie de Jésus (Life of Jesus), which caused an uproar when it was published in 1863, examined the historical biography of Jesus and introduced the proposition that Christianity had been created by the popular imagination, based on messianic expectations.
Ernest Renan is also known for his political writings. In his 1882 discourse, Qu'est-ce qu'une nation? (What is a Nation?) Renan defined a nation, not by common language or common culture, but by the desire of a people to live together, which he summed up in a famous phrase, "avoir fait de grandes choses ensemble, vouloir en faire encore" ("having done great things together and wishing to do more").
Ernest Renan was born February 28, 1823, at Tréguier in Brittany, France, to a family of fishermen. His grandfather, having made a small fortune with his fishing-shack, bought a house at Tréguier and settled there, and his father, captain of a small cutter and an ardent republican, married the daughter of Royalist tradesmen from the neighboring town of Lannion. All his life, Renan felt torn between his father's and his mother's political beliefs. He was five when his father died, and his sister, Henriette, twelve years his senior, became the moral head of the household. Having unsuccessfully attempted to keep a school for girls at Tréguier, she went to Paris as a teacher in a young ladies' boarding-school. Ernest, meanwhile, was educated in the ecclesiastical seminary in Tréguier. His school reports describe him as being "docile, patient, diligent, painstaking, thorough." While the priests grounded him in mathematics and Latin, his mother completed his education. She was half Breton, but 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 won all the prizes at the college of Tréguier. His sister told the doctor of the school in Paris where she taught, and he mentioned this to Félix Dupanloup, who was involved 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, in an attempt to cement the bond between the aristocracy and the priesthood. Dupanloup sent for Renan, who was only fifteen and had never been outside Brittany. "I learned with stupor that knowledge was not a privilege of the church … I awoke to the meaning of the words talent, fame, celebrity." Religion seemed to him wholly different in Tréguier than 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-les-Moulineaux. 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 solid material of Catholic theology. Among the philosophers, he was first attracted to Thomas Reid and Nicolas Malebranche, and, after these, he turned to Georg Hegel, Immanuel Kant and Herder. Renan began to see an essential contradiction between the metaphysics which he studied and the faith he professed, but an appetite for verifiable truths restrained his skepticism. "Philosophy excites and only half satisfies the appetite for truth; I am eager for mathematics," he wrote to Henriette,who had by now accepted a more lucrative engagement in the family of Count Zamoyski. She exercised the strongest influence over her brother, and her published letters reveal a mind almost equal, and a moral strength superior, to his own.
It was not mathematics, but philology which was to settle Renan's gathering doubts. 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 began the study of Hebrew. He recognized that the second part of Isaiah differed from the first not only in style but in date, that the grammar and the history of the Pentateuch were later than the time of Moses, and that the Book of Daniel was clearly written centuries after the time in which it is set. Secretly, Renan felt himself cut off from the communion of saints, yet desired to live the life of a Catholic priest. Finally, finding the church’s teachings incompatible with historical truth, he decided to give up the priesthood and pursue secular studies. In October 1845, Renan left St Sulpice for Stanislas, a lay college of the Oratorians. Still feeling too much under the domination of the church, he reluctantly broke the last tie which bound him to the religious life and entered M. Crouzet's school for boys as a teacher.
Renan, brought up by priests, experienced an intellectual awakening as he pursued the scientific ideal. He became intoxicated with the splendor 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." In 1846, the chemist Marcellin Berthelot, then a boy of eighteen and his pupil at M. Crouzet's school, taught him the principles of physical and natural science. Their friendship continued to the day of Renan's death. Renan was occupied as usher only in the evenings. In the daytime, he continued his researches in Semitic philology. In 1847, he obtained the Volney prize, one of the principal distinctions awarded by the Academy of Inscriptions, for the manuscript of his "General History of Semitic Languages." In 1847, he also took his degree as Agrégé de Philosophie, fellow of the university, and was offered a place as master in the lycée of Vendôme.
Renan was deeply inspired by the revolution and the proclamation of the Second French Republic in France in February, 1848, reacting to events with both enthusiasm and skepticism. He expressed this ambiguous attitude in L'Avenir de la science (1890; The Future of Science), which remained unpublished until much later, in which he emphasized the importance of knowing the history of religious origins, and suggested that it should be studied as a science, in the same way as natural science is studied.
In 1849, the French government sent him to Italy, to help classify manuscripts which had previously been inaccessible to French scholars. In 1850, Renan returned to Paris and lived with his sister, Henriette, earning a small salary from a post at the Bibliothèque Nationale. In 1852, he presented his doctoral thesis, Averroès et l'Averroïsme (1852; Averroës and Averroism). Two collections of essays, Études d'histoire religieuse (1857; Studies of Religious History) and Essais de morale et de critique (1859; Moral and Critical Essays), first written for the Revue des Deux Mondes and the Journal des Débats, introduced a historical, humanistic approach to religion to the public. In the Essais he also denounced the materialism and intolerance of the Second Empire (1852–70), calling on intellectuals, acting as “bastions of the spirit,” to resist tyranny by intellectual and spiritual refinement.
In 1856, Renan married Cornélie Scheffer, niece of the painter Ary Scheffer. In October 1860, Renan was sent to Lebanon on an archaeological mission, and discovered some Phoenician inscriptions, which he published in Mission de Phénicie (1864–74; “Phoenician Expedition”) and later included in the Corpus Inscriptionum Semiticarum (“Corpus of Semitic Inscriptions”), which he helped to produce through the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres. In April 1861, he went to the Holy Land with his wife and sister to do research for a work on the life of Jesus. He completed a first draft in Lebanon, where his sister, Henriette, died of malaria in September 1861, and he himself became seriously ill.
Renan had hoped that his Life of Jesus would secure an appointment to the chair of Hebrew at the Collège de France. He was appointed in January 1862, before his book went to press. In his opening lecture, on February 21, he referred to Jesus in the words of the historian Jacques Bossuet, as “an incomparable man.” An uproar ensued from his lecture, and the authorities, who felt that this statement implied atheism, had Renan suspended. He refused an appointment to the Bibliothèque Imperiale (June 1864), and the chair of Hebrew was not restored to him until 1870, after the fall of the Empire. This incident placed him in direct opposition to the church. He had already begun to participate in the dissident salons of Princess Mathilde, niece of Napoleon Bonaparte, and to associate with Gustave Flaubert, Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve, Hippolyte Taine, and the Goncourt brothers.
When Vie de Jésus (Life of Jesus) was published in 1863, it was denounced by the church. It presented a “mythical” account suggesting that Christianity had been created by the popular imagination, based on messianic expectations. He continued to write a series of works, Histoire des origines du christianisme (The History of the Origins of Christianity). After a journey in Asia Minor in 1864–65 with his wife, he published Les Apôtres (1866; The Apostles) and Saint Paul (1869), describing how Christianity spread among the rootless proletariat of the cities of Asia Minor.
In 1869, Renan ran in the parliamentary election for Meaux as the candidate of the liberal opposition, but was not elected. The same year, he expressed his liberal views in an article, “La Monarchie constitutionnelle en France” (“Constitutional Monarchy in France”). During the Franco-German War of 1870–71, he corresponded with the German theologian David Friedrich Strauss, and attempted to persuade the Prussian crown prince (later Frederick III) to stop the war. The Empire fell, and Napoleon III went into exile. The Franco-German War was a turning-point in Renan's life. He had always regarded Germany as a bastion of thought and disinterested science. Now, he saw Germany as an invader, destroying and ruining the land of his birth. Bitter about the defeat of France and angry with democracy, he now became an authoritarian.
In La Réforme intellectuelle et morale (1871), Renan proposed to safeguard France's future by imposing a feudal society, a monarchical government administered by an elite, and an ideal of honor and duty imposed by a chosen few on the recalcitrant and subject multitude. The errors of the French Commune confirmed Renan’s reactionary ideas. The irony always perceptible in his work grew 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) combined outstanding literary genius with disenchantment and skepticism. He had vainly tried to make his country follow his precepts, and resigned himself to watching France drift towards perdition. Instead, he saw that as events progressed, France was growing stronger. Aroused from his disillusionment, he observed with interest the struggle of a democratic society for justice and liberty. The fifth and sixth volumes of the Origins of Christianity (The Christian Church and Marcus Aurelius) showed him reconciled with democracy, confident in the gradual ascent of humanity, aware that the greatest catastrophes do not really interrupt the sure if imperceptible progress of the world, and appreciative of the moral values of Catholicism.
Renan withdrew from public life and involved himself in his writing. He continued to travel all over Europe, visiting surviving Bonapartists, such as Prince Jérôme Napoléon. In 1878, he was elected to the Académie Française.
Renan was nearly sixty when, in 1883, he published his best-known work, Souvenirs d'enfance et de jeunesse (Recollections of My Youth, 1883). The book gave the modern reader a glimpse of a poetic and primitive world still existing within living memory on the northwestern coast of France, and attempted to show how his childhood there had inevitably shaped his destiny. Ecclesiastes, published a few months earlier, and Drames philosophiques, collected in 1888, give a more accurate portrayal of his fastidious critical, disenchanted, yet optimistic spirit. They show the attitude of a philosopher who was liberal in his convictions and aristocratic by inclination, towards uncultured Socialism. Renan portrayed religion and knowledge as being as imperishable as the world they dignified.
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 Académie des Inscriptions under Renan's direction from the year 1881, until the end of his life. The first volume of the History of Israel appeared in 1887; the third, in 1891; the last two posthumously. As a history of facts and theories, the book had many flaws; as an essay on the evolution of the religious idea, it was (despite some incoherent or irrelevant passages) of extraordinary importance; as a reflection of the mind of Renan, it was a lifelike image. In a volume of collected essays, Feuilles détachées, published also in 1891, Renan affirmed the necessity of piety independent of dogma.
In his last years, Renan received many honors, and was made an administrator of the College de France and grand officer of the Legion of Honour. Exhausted from overwork, Renan died after a few days' illness in 1892, and was buried in the Cimetière de Montmartre in the Montmartre Quarter of Paris.
Thought and works
Ernest Renan’s works reflect a variety of approaches and changing attitudes which are a reflection of the intellectual and historical environment of Europe during his time. His writings were as much works of literature as of philosophy or history, and even his historical works were, at the same time, a portrayal of his own frame of mind at the time they were written. Historians are critical of his methods, but his revolutionary conclusions had a deep impact on the general public and were later more fully developed by other theologians and historians.
His autobiography, Souvenirs d'enfance et de jeunesse (Recollections of My Youth, 1883), reveals the source of Renan’s thought. Influenced by his family, his sister Henriette, and the local priests, he developed a deep feeling of religious piety, yet he was driven away from religion by the rigid dogmatism of the Roman Catholic church. At the age of twenty, he found himself a non-believer because he could not reconcile church doctrines with the scientific truths which he saw before him. Renan himself said that, had he been raised a Protestant, he would have been offered more doctrinal choices and might have been able to pursue his desire to become a priest.
Renan recognized that the greatest problems of philosophy can neither be directly affirmed nor denied, and that they do not have rationally demonstrable solutions. His response was an ironical skepticism. He suggested that philosophy required a “nuance of faith,” and that the distinction between knowledge and faith should never be overlooked. In Examen de Conscience Philosophique, written four years before his death, Renan put forth skepticism as an apology for his own uncertainty and the paradoxical changes in his point of view.
The survey of human affairs is not complete, unless we allot a place for irony beside that of tears, a place for pity beside that of rage, and a place for a smile alongside respect (Preface to Drames philosophiques, 1888).
Renan’s early work, L'Avenir de la science (1890; The Future of Science), was written during a period of inspiration and enthusiasm at the beginning of the Second French Republic, a time when society was confident that science could provide answers to any question. Though Renan soon understood the limitations of science, the premises he laid out in this book remained a foundation for his entire career. Renan emphasized the importance of knowing the historical origins of religion in order to develop a correct understanding of faith. This became a premise of modern theology, and the historical and archaeological study of religious texts has become a significant field of theology in all religions.
Two volumes of the History of Israel, his correspondence with his sister Henriette, his Letters to M. Berthelot, and the History of the Religious Policy of Philippe-le-Bel, which he wrote in the years immediately before his marriage, all appeared during the last eight years of the nineteenth century.
In his own lifetime, Renan was best known as the author of the hugely popular Vie de Jésus (Life of Jesus). The book's controversial assertions that the life of Jesus should be written like the life of any other man, and that the Bible could be subject to the same critical scrutiny as other historical documents sparked a flurry of debate and enraged the Roman Catholic Church.
I have learned several things, but I have changed in nowise as to the general system of intellectual and moral life. My habitation has become more spacious, but it still stands on the same ground. I look upon my estrangement from orthodoxy as only a change of opinion concerning an important historical question, a change which does not prevent me from dwelling on the same foundations as before.
Politics: The nation
Renan is famous for the definition of a nation given in his 1882 discourse, Qu'est-ce qu'une nation? (What is a Nation?) Whereas German writers like Fichte had defined the nation by objective criteria such as a race or an ethnic group sharing common characteristics (such as language), Renan defined it by the desire of a people to live together, which he summed up in a famous phrase, "avoir fait de grandes choses ensemble, vouloir en faire encore" ("having done great things together and wishing to do more"). Writing in the midst of the dispute concerning the Alsace-Lorraine region, he declared that the existence of a nation was based on a "daily referendum." He also said that a nation was "a group of people united by a mistaken view about the past and a hatred of their neighbors." In fact, if "the essential element of a nation is that all its individuals must have many things in common," they "must also have forgotten many things. Every French citizen must have forgotten the night of St. Bartholomew and the massacres in the thirteenth century in the South (Albigensian Crusade)."
Nature has made a race of workers, the Chinese race, who have wonderful manual dexterity and almost no sense of honor…A race of tillers of the soil, the Negro; treat him with kindness and humanity, and all will be as it should; a race of masters and soldiers, the European race. Reduce this noble race to working in the ergastulum like Negros and Chinese, and they rebel… But the life at which our workers rebel would make a Chinese or a fellah happy, as they are not military creatures in the least. Let each one do what he is made for, and all will be well (From Ernest Renan, "La Reforme intellectuelle et morale").
- Histoire générale et système comparé des langues sémitiques (1855)
- Études d'histoire religieuse (1857)
- De l'origine du langage (1858)
- Essais de morale et de critique (1859)
- Le Cantique des cantiques—translation (1860)
- Vie de Jésus (1863)
- Life of Jesus (English translation)
- Prière sur l'Acropole—Prayer on the Acropolis (1865)
- Mission de Phénicie (1865-1874)
- L'Antéchrist (1873)
- Caliban (1878)
- Histoire des origines du Christianisme—8 volumes (1866-1881)
- Histoire du peuple d'Israël—5 volumes (1887-1893)
- Eau de Jouvence (1880)
- Souvenirs d'enfance et de jeunesse (1884)
- Le Prêtre de Némi (1885)
- Examen de conscience philosophique (1889)
- La Réforme intellectuelle et morale (1871)
- Qu'est-ce qu'une nation? (Lecture delivered on March 11, 1882, at the Sorbonne)
- L'avenir de la science (1890)
- Blanshard, Brand. 1984. Four Reasonable men: Marcus Aurelius, John Stuart Mill, Ernest Renan, Henry Sidgwick. Middletown, Conn: Wesleyan University Press. ISBN 0819551007
- Chadbourne, Richard McClain. 1957. Ernest Renan as an Essayist. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.
- Ibn Warraq. 2000. The Quest for the Historical Muhammad. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books. ISBN 1573927872
- Lee, David C. J. 1996. Ernest Renan: In the Shadow of Faith. London: Duckworth. ISBN 0715627201
- Renan, Ernest. 1955. The Life of Jesus. New York: The Modern Library.
- Renan, Ernest and Irving Babbitt. 1902. Souvenirs d'enfance et de jeunesse. Boston: D.C. Heath & Co.
- Wardman, Harold W. 1964. Ernest Renan; A Critical Biography. London: University of London, Athlone Press.
- Reardon, Bernard M. G. 1985. Religion in the Age of Romanticism: Studies in Early Nineteenth Century Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521300886
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