Popular Science Monthly/Volume 42/April 1893/Ernest Renan

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NOTHING could be simpler, or more of a piece, than the life of Ernest Renan. Study, teaching, and the joys of family life are its whole fabric, and fill it from end to end. For diversions, a little travel and the pleasures of conversation—friendly dinners, and a few frequented salons. Twice, indeed—urged by the thought that a man of his standing owed something of his time and strength to the public service—he solicited the popular vote: once in 1869, as deputy for the Seine and Marne; and again in 1876, as senator for the Bouches du Rhône. But he carried into these electoral contests no trace of the fever of ambition, and when he saw that he was not likely to command a spontaneous majority he retired from the field without vexation and without regret.

He was a native of Tréguier (Côtes du Nord), one of those ancient episcopal cities of Brittany which have retained their ecclesiastical character even down to our own time. The humble house is still to be seen, close under the great cathedral founded by St. Yves, where Renan was born on the 27th of February, 1823, and the little garden, planted with fruit trees, where he played when quite a child, letting his eyes wander over the still and sad horizon of the hills which skirt the river bank. His father—a captain in the merchant navy, who also carried on a small trade—was of ancient Breton descent, the name of Renan being that of one of the oldest of the Armorican saints. He transmitted to his son the dreamy imaginative nature and the disinterested simplicity of his race. His mother was of Lannion, a little commercial town which has nothing of the monastic look of Tréguier. Pious as she was, she had an elasticity and joyousness of nature which her son inherited from her, and which he attributed to her Gascon origin. Renan has too often insisted on the co-existence of the two natures in himself—the Breton seriousness and the Gascon vivacity—for us to venture to contradict him on this point; but the serious side of him was first and last and strongest in all he wrote, or did, or thought.

For the rest, life began for him austerely, and more than austerely; it was hard and painful. While he was yet a child, his father was lost at sea; and it was only by the most self-denying economy that his mother could provide for the education of her three children. But Renan had no grudge against his destiny for giving him these years of privation; he was grateful for having been brought up in the knowledge and love of poverty. All his life he loved the poor, the humble, the common people. He never turned his back on the lowly relatives he had left in Brittany. Down to the last years of his life he loved to visit them; and it is characteristic of him that he kept the little home of his childhood just as it was. His sister Henrietta, twelve years his senior—a woman as remarkable for her force of mind and character as for her passionate tenderness of heart—worked hard for her family, giving lessons first in Tréguier, then at a school in Paris, then in Poland, and all the while watching with a sort of motherly solicitude the progress of this young brother, whose gifts she had already recognized. Young Ernest was meanwhile doing his "humanities" under the good priests in the seminary at Tréguier—a gentle and studious scholar, carrying off all the first prizes as a matter of course, and seeing before him no larger future than that of a simple and learned priest among his own people, with perhaps, at last, a canonry in some cathedral. But it so happened that his sister had met in Paris a young, brilliant, and ambitious abbé, M. Dupanloup, who had just been appointed head of the seminary of Saint Nicolas du Chardonnet, and who was looking out for clever recruits. She spoke to him of her brother; and the result was that, at fifteen and a half years old, Ernest Renan found himself transplanted to Paris, where he astonished his new masters by his marvelous facility of acquisition and the early maturity of his mind, and, after passing through his course of philosophy in the seminary of Issy, was entered at Saint Sulpice for his theology. Saint Sulpice was then the only seminary in France which kept up the tradition of the severer studies, and which, in particular, taught the Oriental languages. Its teachers—especially the eminent Orientalist, Father Le Hir—recalled, by the austerity of their life and the profundity of their learning, the great scholars of the Church in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Renan rapidly became the friend, and then the rival, of his masters, who discerned in him one of the future glories of their house, and little guessed that the very lessons he received there were to separate him from it forever.

The crisis, when it came, was a purely intellectual crisis. By training him in comparative philology and criticism, and by encouraging the scrutiny of the sacred writings, the priests of Saint Sulpice had placed in the hands of their young disciple the most formidable instrument of negation. His quick intelligence, lucid, penetrating, and sincere, perceived at once the weakness of the theological structure on which rests the whole weight of Catholic doctrine. All that he had learned at Issy of natural science and philosophy served to re-enforce the doubts inspired by historical and linguistic criticism as to the infallibility of the Church and the Scriptures, and the teaching which makes the Christian revelation the central fact of history and the explanation of the universe. It was a heart-breaking process, since it was to carry disappointment and dismay, not only to the teachers he venerated but to a mother whom he tenderly loved; but he did not hesitate for a moment to take the step imposed upon him by honesty and conscience. He left the peaceful asylum which had held out to him the promise of an assured future, for the hard life of an assistant schoolmaster in the Quartier Latin, and began, at twenty-two, to prepare for the examinations necessary to his entering on the career of a professor. At this difficult juncture his sister came to his aid. Her own thoughts and her own studies had already brought her to the same negative views with regard to the Catholic religion, though she had steadily avoided unsettling her brother's mind with her doubts; and when he opened his heart to her, and told her his reasons for quitting the seminary and renouncing the priesthood, she received the news with joy, and sent him her savings—some twelve hundred francs—to help him over his first difficulties.

But he had no need to exhaust this reserve fund. With his extraordinary powers and the knowledge he had already acquired, he soon made himself an independent position, and henceforth he went on from one success to another. The record of his achievements during the five years which followed his withdrawal from Saint Sulpice (1846-1850) is simply astounding. He passed through all his university degrees, from the B. A. to the "agrégation" in philosophy, where he took a first in 1848; he took the Volney prize the same year at the Académie des Inscriptions for an important work on the general history and comparative grammar of the Semitic languages, and another prize two years later for an essay on the study of Greek in the middle ages; he made a tour of research among the Italian libraries, whence he brought back his thèse de doctorat—a book on Averrhoes and Averrhoism, which contains an admirable history of the introduction of Greek philosophy into the West by the Arabs; and at the same time he published an essay on the origin of language, and composed a considerable work on the Future of Science, which was not published till 1890.

This book, written in the space of a few months by a young man of twenty-five, already embodies all the ideas on life and the world which he elaborated in detail in his later writings; but they are here affirmed in a tone of enthusiastic conviction which became more and more modified as he went on, though the basis of his teaching remained unchanged. He hails the dawn of a new era, in which, the scientific conception of the universe shall take the place of the metaphysical and theological. Natural science, and especially the historical and philological sciences, are to be not only the liberators of the human mind, but also the guides of human life. Politics, ethics, education—all are to be regenerated by science. Science is to establish the reign of justice among men, and to become the source and final form of religion.

It was by the advice of Augustin Thierry and M. de Sacy that Renan suppressed this volume, in the fear that its hard and dogmatic tone might repel the reader, and that its ideas would prove too new and too daring to be accepted all at once. Besides, Augustin Thierry was uneasy at seeing his young friend ready to give away at a stroke his whole intellectual capital. He persuaded him to dispense it in detail in the Revue des Deux Mondes and the Journal des Débats. And thus it was that Renan became the first of our essayists, giving currency to his most audacious conceptions, and to all the discoveries of comparative philology and rationalistic exegesis, under the light, easy, and accessible form of literary and philosophic criticism. They were republished in the volumes entitled Moral and Critical Essays, Studies in Religious History, and New Studies in Religious History. His literary fame grew fast, while his learned works obtained for him, in 1856, at the age of thirty-three, the membership of the Académie des Inscriptions.

From the year 1851 onward he was attached to the Bibliothèque Nationale; and this modest post, together with the growing income derived from his works, had enabled him to marry. This marriage had very nearly been the occasion of another dramatic episode in his private life. He had lived, since 1850, with his sister Henrietta; their fellowship of thought and feeling had grown with their fellowship in life and work; and Henrietta—who supposed that in abandoning the Church for science her brother had but exchanged one priesthood for another—had never dreamed that anything could separate them. When he told her of his intended marriage, she betrayed such acute distress that he determined to renounce the project which caused her so much unhappiness; and it was Henrietta herself who flew to Mlle. Scheffer and entreated her not to give up her brother, and Henrietta who hurried on the marriage, the mere idea of which had been too much for her self-control. The marriage did not, after all, involve her separation from her brother. She attached herself passionately to his children; and when he and his wife made a journey to Phœnicia on an archæological mission she accompanied them, and stayed with her brother when Madame Renan was obliged to return home. These few months of dual life were her last happiness. They were both attacked by fever at Beyrout. She died, while he, prostrated by the malady, was too ill to realize his loss. In the little biographical sketch, which is his most exquisite work, and one of the purest masterpieces of French prose, he has given her portrait to posterity and made us share his loss.

He brought back from Syria not only the inscriptions and archæological observations published in his Phœnician Mission, which appeared in numbers from 1863 to 1874, but also the first sketch of his Vie de Jésus, which forms the first volume of the great work of his life, L'Histoire des Origines du Christianisme, in seven octavo volumes. The religious questions had always seemed to him the vital questions of history, and the ones which most needed the application of the two essential qualities of the historian—critical acumen, and that divination of the imagination which resuscitates the men and civilizations of the past. It was upon Christianity, the greatest religious phenomenon of the world, that Renan turned the whole resources of his erudition, of his poetic insight, and artistic skill. He was afterward to complete the work by adding to it, by way of introduction, a History of Israel, of which three volumes have been already published, and the remaining two are finished and ready for the press.

The appearance of the Vie de Jésus was not only a literary event but a social and religious fact of vast import. It was the first time that the Life of Christ had been written from a purely laical point of view and apart from any supernatural conceptions, in a book destined not for doctors and theologians but for the general public. In spite of the infinite delicacy with which Renan presented his idea, the softened and reverent tone in which he speaks of Christ—or, possibly, even on account of that delicacy and reverence—the scandal of it was colossal. The Catholic clergy felt at once that this form of incredulity, expressing itself with all the gravity of science and all the unction of piety, was far more formidable than the flippancy of Voltairianism; and coming, as it did, from a pupil of the ecclesiastical schools, the sacrilege and the heresy were complicated with treason and apostacy. The Imperial Government, which in 1862 had nominated him Professor of Semitic Philology in the Collége de France, had the cowardice to revoke the nomination in 1863 in deference to the clamor set up in the clerical camp, but innocently offered him, by way of compensation, a curator's post at the Bibliothèque Nationale. "Pecunia tua tecum sit" (thy money be with thee) was Renan's reply to the minister who offered it; and freed henceforth, by the extraordinary success of his book, from material cares, the "European blasphemer," as Pius IX called him, went quietly on with his work. It was not till after the fall of the empire, in 1870, that his chair was given back to him. Not only did he occupy it thenceforward till his death, but he became in 1883 the honored head of the great scientific establishment from which he had once been driven with indignity.

Forced, by the publication of the Vie de Jésus, into the arena of religious conflict, Renan never stooped to polemics. He kept the quiet of his thoughts, untouched by all this wrangling; and he continued to speak of Christianity and the Catholic Church with the same even fairness—I may say more, with the same respectful though independent sympathy. The English public had an opportunity of appreciating these high qualities of intellectual liberty and calm when, in 1880, he gave his Hibbert lectures on Rome and Christianity, and another admirable lecture on Marcus Aurelius, at the Royal Institution—a lecture in which he anticipated the generalization of the last and finest volume of his Origines du Christianisme.

The year 1870 marks an important epoch in the life of Renan. It was, indeed, the year of a new crisis. From the moment when he emancipated himself from his first foster-mother, the Church, and from his ecclesiastical education, Germany had been the second foster-mother of his mind. As he had broken with the Church without ceasing to recognize her greatness and the services she had rendered, and still renders, to the world, so now he suffered, not without pain, the relaxation—almost the rupture—of the moral ties which bound him to Germany; but he never repudiated the debt of gratitude he owed her, nor ever sought to depreciate her virtues and her merits. He gives eloquent expression to his feelings in his letters to Dr. Strauss in 1871, in his speech on his reception into the French Academy, and in his letter to a German friend in 1878. At the same time a new development took place in his political conceptions. An aristocrat by temperament, and a constitutional monarchist in opinion, he found himself called to live in a democratic society and under a republic. Convinced as he was that the great movements of history have their real origin in the very nature of things, and that one can influence one's contemporaries and one's compatriots only by accepting the tendencies and conditions of the time, he was able to reconcile himself to the democracy and the republic, and to appreciate their advantages without ignoring their difficulties and their dangers.

Henceforth, therefore, Renan was in full possession of his powers and in full harmony with his time. Emancipated from the Church, he was the interpreter of free thought in its loftiest and most learned form, in a country which regarded clericalism as the most formidable enemy of its new institutions. Emancipated from Germany, and finding in the very misfortunes of his country a stimulus and a spur to his patriotism, he sought to make his writings the most perfect expression of the genius of France. Emancipated from all the fetters of extinct political systems, he offered to a new France the counsels and the warnings of a clear-sighted and devoted friend. In his writings there was no ground on which he did not venture. In the midst of his great historical and exegetical work, his translations of Job, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs, his superintendence of the difficult undertaking of the Corpus Inscriptionum Semiticarum, his contributions to the literary history of France—contributions which are triumphs of minute and accurate erudition—and while drawing up, year by year, for the Asiatic Society, a survey of all the new works on Oriental subjects, he was giving to the world his views and his visions of the universe and humanity, of life and of morals, now under the severer form of the Philosophic Dialogues, now in the light and softly ironical guise of the dramatic sketches—Caliban, L'Eau de Jouvence, Le Prêtre de Némi, L'Abbesse de Jouarre; and, in addition to all this, he was working hard at the reform of the higher education, and finding time to write those exquisite fragments of autobiography which are collected under the title Souvenirs d'Enfance et de Jeunesse.

In this expansion of all his faculties of thought and action, favored by the triple life of the study, the world, and the family, Renan was happy; and his joy in life and its activities gave to his philosophy a sunny optimism which might at first sight seem hardly reconcilable with the absence of all certitude, all metaphysical or religious conviction. People were surprised and a little shocked to find the author of the Moral and Critical Essays, the writer of those unforgettable pages on the dreamy melancholy of the Celtic races, the critic who poured reprehension on the frivolity of the Gaul and the bourgeois theology of Béranger, preaching at times a gospel of light-heartedness which Béranger himself would not have disavowed, and regarding life as an amusing entertainment of which we are at once the puppets and the spectators, and the wires of which are pulled by an amused but indifferent Demiurge. To many readers Renan became the mere apostle of dilettanteism, for whom religion was but an empty dream of the imagination or the heart, morality but an assemblage of conventions and conveniences, and life an illusive phantasmagoria which one must not be duped into taking seriously.

Nevertheless, those who best knew his work—and, above all, those who best knew his life—knew that this dilettanteism, this apparent epicureanism, did not really lie at the foundation of his mind and heart; that it was in part the result of the inward contradiction between his deeply religious nature and his conviction that there is no such thing as knowledge, except of phenomena, no such thing as certitude, except of finite things; and, for the rest, he was too sincere to affirm anything on subjects which could not be brought within the range of positive cognizance. His life —the habitual attitude of his nature—was that of a Stoic, a Stoic without haughtiness and without rigidity, and with no idea of proposing himself as a model for others. His optimism was not the beatified self-satisfaction of a frivolous mind, but the chosen and cultivated optimism of the man of action, who feels that, in order to act, one must believe that life is worth living, and that some things are worth doing. Never was there a man more deeply benevolent, serviceable, and kind than Ernest Renan, however he accused himself of coldness in the service of his friends. Never was there a more scrupulous devotee of duty, public and private, faithful to the verge of heroism to every undertaking to which he had committed himself, accepting no office of which he could not fulfill all the obligations, and defying, toward the end of his life, the sharpest sufferings, in order to discharge to the last his professional duties. This apparently light-hearted man was subject for many years to attacks of a most painful illness; but he never allowed them to interfere with the integrity of his thought, or to hinder the, accomplishment of the tasks which he had set himself. The last months of his life bore witness to the reality of his stoicism. He had often expressed the wish that he might die without pain and without any enfeebling of the mind. He had, indeed, the happiness of retaining his faculties to the last; but pain was not spared him. He dreaded it beforehand, as depressing and degrading; when it came, he did not allow himself to be depressed or degraded by it. From the month of January he knew that there was no hope; he told his friends so; and he asked nothing more but time and strength to finish his lectures and complete the works already in hand. He wished once more to visit his beloved Brittany; then, feeling himself grow worse, he insisted on returning to Paris, to die at his post as head of the College de France. His death took place there on the 2d of October.[2] During these eight months he suffered incessant pain, sometimes so severe that he could not speak; but he was still gentle and affectionate to those around him, trying to cheer them, and telling them that he was happy. The very day of his death he found strength to dictate a page or two on Arabic architecture to his wife. He congratulated himself on having attained his seventieth year—"the normal life of man, according to the Scriptures." One of his last utterances was: "Let us submit ourselves to these laws of Nature, of which we ourselves are one of the manifestations. The heavens and the earth remain."

To those who have known him, he leaves an ineffaceable memory. There was nothing in his personal appearance to suggest that irresistible charm. Short of stature, with an enormous head set deep between wide shoulders, afflicted all too early with an excessive stoutness which made his gait heavy, and was the cause—or the symptom—of his mortal malady, he seemed to those who saw him only in passing an ugly man. But you had to speak with him but a moment, and all that was forgotten. You noticed at once the broad and powerful forehead, the eyes sparkling with life and wit, and yet with such a caressing sweetness, and, above all, the smile which opened to you all the goodness of his heart. His manner, which had retained something of the paternal affability of the priest, the benedictory gesture of his plump and dimpled hands, and the approving motion of the head, were indications of an urbanity which never deceived, and in which one felt the nobility of his nature and his race. But the indescribable thing was the charm of his speech. His portentous memory kept him supplied with new facts to contribute on every subject, while his splendid imagination and the originality and distinctness of his ideas enriched his often paradoxical conversation with flights of poetry, with illustrations and comparisons the most unexpected, and now and then with prophetic glimpses into the future. He was an incomparable story-teller. The Breton legends, passing through his lips, acquired an exquisite flavor. He had no liking for discussion, and has often been satirized for the facility with which he would give his assent to the most contradictory assertions. But this complaisance toward other people's ideas, which had its source in a politeness not always quite free from disdain, did not prevent him from firmly maintaining his opinion when any serious question was in debate. He detested controversy.

One merit he had which no one dreams of disputing. He was beyond comparison the greatest writer of his time; and he is one of the greatest French writers of all time. Brought up on the Bible, the Greek and Latin classics, and the standard authors of France, he had accustomed himself to a fashion of speech, at once simple and original, expressive without oddity, and supple without languor; a style which, out of the somewhat restricted vocabulary of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, could sufficiently furnish itself to render every subtlest shade of modern thought—a style ample, sparkling, and sweet beyond all parallel.

In the region of the learned studies Renan has not been a creator. Neither in philology, nor in archeology, nor in exegesis, has he made any of those great discoveries, or founded any of those systems, which renew the face of science. But no other man can lay claim to an erudition at once so universal and so precise as his. Language, literature, theology, philosophy, archæology, and even natural history—no branch of human knowledge was alien to him. His profound acquaintance with the past, together with the magic gift which enabled him to clothe it with flesh and make it stand upon its feet, made him an incomparable historian. And it may be said that he has enlarged the domain of history by admitting into it the history of religions.

If Renan was not a creator in the domain of learning, neither was he an innovator in the domain of philosophy. His theological studies, while they developed in him the qualities of the critic and the savant, tended to disgust him with metaphysical systems. He was too much a historian to see in these systems anything but the dreams of human ignorance amid an assemblage of things it could not understand, the successive mirages thrown up before the mind by the changing spectacle of the world. But if he was not a philosopher, he was a great thinker. He flung broadcast on every subject he touched—on art or politics as on science or religion—the most original and the most pregnant ideas.

As to his skepticism and his so-called dilettanteism, they were but the consequence of his sincerity. Afraid, above all things, of deceiving or being deceived, he had no fear of proposing contradictory hypotheses on subjects where he believed certainty to be impossible. People have wondered that the same man who wished to have the words "Veritatem dilexi" placed upon his tomb should so often have asked with Pilate, "What is truth?" But these questions, not unmingled with irony, were themselves a homage to the truth. He perceived that for most men the love of the truth means intolerance, fanaticism, particular opinions received by tradition or born of the imagination, always destitute of proof and destructive of freedom of thought. To assert opinions which he could not prove seemed to him an insufferable impertinence, an infringement of intellectual liberty, a want of sincerity toward himself and others. And he bore himself this testimony: That he had never consciously uttered a lie. He regarded it as stoicism, not skepticism, to go on in the practice of duty without knowing whether it had any objective reality; to live for the ideal without believing in a personal God or in any future life.

And now, if we are to ask what is the special characteristic by which Renan must take rank among the great writers and great thinkers of the world, we shall find that his supremacy resides in his peculiar gift of seeing Nature and history in their infinite variety. He recreated the universe in his own brain; he thought it out again, so to speak; and that in a variety of versions. The spectacle that he thus inwardly conceived and contemplated it was given him to communicate to others by a sort of enchantment of persuasive speech. This power of creative contemplation was the main source of the continual gladness which illumined his life, and of the serenity with which he accepted the approach of death.

  1. From his article in the Contemporary Review.
  2. 1892.