Ernest Renan

(History of the World: The 19th Century)
0111206073-Renan.jpg (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Renan’s writings encompass the areas of religion, history, science, and morality. His controversial biography of Jesus Christ illustrates Renan’s ongoing theme of resolution of contradictions by emphasizing the problem of reconciling the historical and the spiritually divine Jesus.

Early Life

Joseph-Ernest Renan was born in Tréguier, a town in Britanny that was in many respects a religious center. His youth was shaded by a veil of devout Catholicism, to which he, in accordance with his mother’s most intense wishes and his own strong inclinations, was committed. His father, Philibert, was a grocer and seaman. His mother, Magdelaine Féger, was widowed when Ernest was five years old, her husband having drowned—it has not been determined whether accidentally or otherwise—at sea. Ernest Renan had a brother, Alain, born in 1809, and a sister, Henriette, born in 1811. His sister was profoundly influential in his life, and his attachment to her is lyrically expressed in Ma Sœur Henriette (1895; My Sister Henrietta, 1895), which was initially published in a limited edition of one hundred copies in 1862 as Henriette Renan: Souvenir pour ceux qui l’ont connue (Henriette Renan: a remembrance for those who knew her) and reprinted posthumously.

From 1832 to 1838, Renan was a student at the Ecclesiastical School in Tréguier, while his sister, having failed to establish a private school for girls, accepted a teaching position in Paris. In 1838, Renan moved to Paris and studied rhetoric at the seminary of Saint-Nicolas du Chardonnet. After three years, he moved to the seminary of Issy-les-Moulineux outside Paris, where his study of philosophy began to bring about his wavering in religious faith. His sister, with whom he was to maintain an ongoing correspondence, had moved, during this time, to Poland, where she found employment as a governess. From Issy-les-Moulineux, he moved in 1849 to the parent seminary of Saint-Sulpice and entered upon his study of theology.

In his academic progression from rhetoric to philosophy to theology, the normal pattern of seminary education in France, Renan developed a devotion to literature, a skeptical turn of mind, and a sense of alienation in his separation, first, from Britanny and, later, from his mother. He remained firmly within his faith, however, and in 1844 became a tonsured cleric in evidence of his call to the priesthood. After a year, he came to realize that he lacked belief sufficient to this vocation, and his rationalism and scientific propensity led him to abandon the ecclesiastical for the secular life. His sister Henriette supported him in his decision and commended his firmness of purpose and strength of will.

He then set his life’s course toward reconciling the two worlds which, as he assured his mother in her disappointment, were not, to his mind, separate. The world of Jesus (the world of religion) and the world of science contradicted each other but were not mutually exclusive. To his own way of thinking, he had departed from Jesus so as to be better able to follow Jesus.

Life’s Work

In 1845, at the age of twenty-two, Renan, believing that his own emotions and his own thoughts were his God, became a tutor, an ultimately successful candidate for the baccalauréat and licence (roughly equivalent to the B.A. and M.A. degrees in the United States), a friend of the chemist Marcellin Berthelot, and a student of the Semitic languages (of which he was soon to become a professor). Two years later, he won the Volney Prize for his essay on the history of the Semitic languages. His friendship with the scientist, which proved to be lifelong, and his own predilection for science, along with his Semitic studies, adumbrated his major contributions to intellectual history and to the history of ideas; these are his Historie des origines du christianisme (1863-1882; The History of the Origins of Christianity, 1890) and L’Avenir de la science (1890; The Future of Science, 1890). Renan completed his work on The Future of Science in 1849, three years before the publication of his doctoral dissertation, Averroès et l’Averroïsme (1852). Segments of the text of The Future of Science appeared in journals, periodicals, and other of his books, but its full publication, with only minor revisions of the original, materialized only two years before his death.

One of the prime focuses of The Future of Science is criticism, a subject which he had initially expounded in his Cahiers de jeunesse (1845-1846; youthful notebooks). Renan’s views on criticism as an intellectual activity anticipated much of the direction that was to be taken by post-World War II critical theorists. For him, true criticism was universal in character and was decidedly not to be limited to literary criticism and even more decidedly not to be identified with judgment and measurements against standards of form and composition. He believed that beauty was open-ended and not subject to the closure that is implied by the concept of an absolute. He saw criticism as a creative use of the powers of interpretation and a conceptual conjunction of history, topography, philosophy, and morality. Like the deconstructionists of the twentieth century, he disregarded the demarcations of disciplines and sought to reconcile the disciplines through comparativism, eclecticism, and synthesis; comparison served him in science, literature, and religion as the great tool of criticism. The Future of Science begins with the very simple statement, “Only one thing is necessary.” The one thing proves to be, after all syntheses have been unified, science as that religion which comprises human feeling and human thought.

H. W. Wardman recognizes in The Future of Science the idea that “philosophy is a human science born of the union of philology and historical sympathy,” and this prompts him effectively to conclude that Renan’s philosopher is “a kind of seer fitted by his insight into human nature to take over from the Church the spiritual leadership of mankind.” Philology, according to Renan, is “the science of the products of the human mind.”

Renan’s notion of history is an extension of Victor Cousin’s concept of the three ages: a primary age informed by religion without science, a secondary age informed by science without religion, and a final age informed by both religion and science. The historical process is the development of the divine. In the final age, the development will have been concluded and...

(The entire section is 2737 words.)