Ludwig Feuerbach Criticism

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Ernest Renan (essay date 1864)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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SOURCE: Renan, Ernest. “Feuerbach and the New Hegelian School.” In Studies of Religious History and Criticism, translated by O. B. Frothingham, pp. 331-41. New York: Carleton, 1864.

[In the following essay, Renan finds fault with Feuerbach's view of Christianity.]

Every considerable movement on the field of human opinions is worthy of interest even when we attach no great value to the mass of ideas that causes it. On this plea, the man who is devoted to critical researches cannot decline to notice the labours of the New Hegelian School on Christianity, although these labours do not always bear a strictly scientific character, and although the fancy of the humourist has often more share in them than the severe method of the historian.

The repugnance of the new German school to Christianity dates from Goethe, Pagan by nature, and especially by literary method. Goethe could have little relish for the æsthetics which substituted the slave's coarse frock for the freeman's toga, the sickly virgin for the antique Venus, the meagre image of a crucified man torn by four nails, for the ideal perfection of the human form represented by the gods of Greece. Inaccessible to fear and to grief, Jupiter was truly the god of this great man, and we are not surprised to see him place the colossal head of this god before his bed, where the rising sun could fall on it, in order that in the morning he might address to it his prayer.

No less decidedly did Hegel pronounce in favour of the religious ideal of the Hellenes and against the intrusion of the Syrian or Galilean elements. The legend of the Christ seems to him to have been conceived on the same plan with the Alexandrine biography of Pythagoras; it has a place, he thinks, in the sphere of the most vulgar realism, but none in a world of poetry: it is a mixture of shabby mysticism and of pale chimeras, such as we find among fantastical people who have no fine imagination. The Old and New Testaments have no æsthetic value in his eyes.

It is the theme that so often roused the spirit of Henri Haine. The learned school of pure Germanists (MM. Gervinus, Lassen, etc.) who, to borrow the ingenious expression of Ozanam, cannot pardon Christian gentleness for having spoiled their bellicose ancestors for them, has been full of the same feeling. But M. Louis Feuerbach1 is, without doubt, the most forward, if not the most correct expression of the antipathy we speak of, and if the nineteenth century is to witness the end of the world, he certainly must be called the Antichrist.

M. Feuerbach comes very near defining Christianity as a perversion of human nature, and Christian æsthetics as a perversion of the most secret instincts of the heart. The perpetual lamentations of Christians over their sins, seem to him intolerable fooleries; the humility and poverty of the monastic life are, to him, the worship of dirt and ugliness, and he would cheerfully say like Rutilius Numatianus: “Is this sect, then, I ask, less deadly than the poison of Circe? Circe changed bodies, now they are spirits that are changed into swine.”

We say it aloud, and with the more confidence, as we wish here to meet considerations of art with views of the same order only, the critical spirit cannot admit so absolute judgment. Wherever there is originality, a real expansion of any instincts of human nature, we must recognize and adore beauty. Sad, as sad as you please, this æsthetic has its boldness and its grandeur. Clumsy and homely as compared with the learned legends of Greece, this legend, aside from its matchless morality, even when regarded as with the eyes of the artist, possesses a great charm of simplicity. Formerly, good taste refused the name of beauty to everything that did not reach perfection of form; such is not our criticism. We excuse barbarism wherever we find the expression of a new phase of feeling, and a genuine breath of the human soul.

Would to God that M. Feuerbach had bathed in richer fountains of life than those of his...

(The entire section is 104,392 words.)