Recollections of My Youth/First Steps Outside St. Sulpice/Part V

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First Steps Outside St. Sulpice/Part V[edit]

I now bring to a conclusion these Recollections by asking the reader to forgive the irritating fault into which writing of this kind leads one in every sentence. Vanity is so deep in its secret calculations that even when frankly criticising himself the writer is liable to the suspicion of not being quite open and above board. The danger in such a case is that he will, with unconscious artfulness, humbly confess, as he can do without much merit, to trifling and external defects so as indirectly to ascribe to himself very high qualities. The demon of vanity is, assuredly, a very subtle one, and I ask myself whether perchance I have fallen a victim to it. If men of taste reproach me with having shown myself to be a true representative of the age while pretending not to be so, I beg them to rest well assured that this will not happen to me again.

Claudite jam rivos, pueri; sat prata biberunt

I have too much work before me to amuse myself in a way which many people will stigmatise as frivolous. My mother's family at Lannion, from which I have inherited my disposition, has supplied several cases of longevity; but certain recurrent symptoms lead me to believe that so far as I am concerned I shall not furnish another. I shall thank God that it is so, if I am thus spared years of decadence and loss of power, which are the only things I dread. At all events, the remainder of my life will be devoted to a research of the pure objective truth. Should these be the last lines in which I am given an opportunity of addressing myself to the public, I may be allowed to thank them for the intelligent and sympathetic way in which they have supported me. In former times the most that a man who went out of the beaten track could expect was that he would be tolerated. My age and country have been much more indulgent for me. Despite his many defects and his humble origin, the son of peasants and of lowly sailors, trebly ridiculous as a deserter from the seminary, an unfrocked clerk and a case-hardened pedant, was from the first well-received, listened to, and ever made much of, simply because he spoke with sincerity. I have had some ardent opponents, but I have never had a personal enemy. The only two objects of my ambition, admission to the Institute and to the College de France, have been gratified. France has allowed me to share the favours which she reserves for all that is liberal: her admirable language, her glorious literary tradition, her rules of tact, and the audience which she can command. Foreigners, too, have aided me in my task as much as my own country, and I shall carry to my grave a feeling of affection for Europe as well as for France, to whom I would at times go on my knees and entreat not to divide her own household by fratricidal jealousy, nor to forget her duty and her common task, which is civilization.

Nearly all the men with whom I have had anything to do have been extremely kind to me. When I first left the seminary, I traversed, as I have said, a period of solitude, during which my sole support consisted of my sister's letters and my conversations with M. Berthelot; but I soon met with encouragement in every direction. M. Egger became, from the beginning of 1846, my friend and my guide in the difficult task of proving, rather late in the day, what I could do in the way of classics. Eugene Burnouf, after perusing a very defective essay which I wrote for the Volney Prize in 1847, chose me as a pupil. M. and Mme. Adolphe Garnier were extremely kind to me. They were a charming couple, and Madame Garnier, radiant with grace and devoid of affectation, first inspired me with admiration for a kind of beauty from which theology had sequestered me. With M. Victor Le Clerc I had brought before my eyes all those qualities of study and methodical application which distinguished my former teachers. I had learnt to like him from the time of my residence at St. Sulpice: he was the only layman whom the directors of the seminary valued, and they envied him his remarkable ecclesiastical erudition. M. Cousin, though he more than once displayed friendliness for me, was too closely surrounded by disciples for me to try and force my way through such a crowd, which was somewhat subservient to their master's utterances. M. Augustin Thierry, upon the other hand, was, in the true sense of the word, a spiritual father for me. His advice is ever in my thoughts, and I have him to thank for having kept clear in my style of writing from certain very ungainly defects which I should not have discovered for myself. It was through him that I made the acquaintance of the Scheffer family, whom I have to thank for a companion who has always assorted herself so harmoniously to my somewhat contracted conditions of life that I am at times tempted, when I reflect upon so many fortunate coincidences, to believe in predestination.

According to my philosophy, which regards the world in its entirety as full of a divine afflation, there is no place for individual will in the government of the universe. Individual Providence, in the sense formerly attached to it, has never been proved by any unmistakable fact. But for this, I should assuredly be thankful to yield to a combination of circumstances in which a mind, less subjugated than my own by general reasoning, would detect the traces of the special protection of benevolent deities. The play of chances which brings up a ternion or a quaternion is nothing compared to what has been required to prevent the combination of which I am reaping the fruits from being disturbed. If my origin had been less lowly in the eyes of the world, I should not have entered or persevered upon that royal road of the intellectual life to which my early training for the priesthood attached me. The displacement of a single atom would have broken the chain of fortuitous facts which, in the remote district of Brittany, was preparing me for a privileged life; which brought me from Brittany to Paris; which, when I was in Paris, took me to the establishment of all others where the best and most solid education was to be had; which, when I left the seminary, saved me from two or three mistakes which would have been the ruin of me; which, when I was on my travels, extricated me from certain dangers that, according to the doctrine of chances, would have been fatal to me; which, to cite one special instance, brought Dr. Suquet over from America to rescue me from the jaws of death which were yawning to swallow me up. The only conclusion I would fain draw from all this is that the unconscious effort towards what is good and true in the universe has its throw of the dice through the intermediary of each one of us. There is no combination but what comes up, quaternions like any other. We may disarrange the designs of Providence in respect to ourselves; but we have next to no influence upon their accomplishment. Quid habes quod non accepisti? The dogma of grace is the truest of all the Christian dogmas.

My experience of life has, therefore, been very pleasant; and I do not think that there are many human beings happier than I am. I have a keen liking for the universe. There may have been moments when subjective scepticism has gained a hold upon me, but it never made me seriously doubt of the reality, and the objections which it has evoked are sequestered by me as it were within an inclosure of forgetfulness; I never give them any thought, my peace of mind is undisturbed. Then, again, I have found a fund of goodness in nature and in society. Thanks to the remarkable good luck which has attended me all my life, and always thrown me into communication with very worthy men, I have never had to make sudden changes in my attitudes. Thanks, also, to an almost unchangeable good temper, the result of moral healthiness, which is itself the result of a well-balanced mind, and of tolerably good bodily health, I have been able to indulge in a quiet philosophy, which finds expression either in grateful optimism or playful irony. I have never gone through much suffering. I might even be tempted to think that nature has more than once thrown down cushions to break the fall for me. Upon one occasion, when my sister died, nature literally put me under chloroform, to save me a sight which would perhaps have created a severe lesion in my feelings, and have permanently affected the serenity of my thought.

Thus, I have to thank some one; I do not exactly know whom. I have had so much pleasure out of life that I am really not justified in claiming a compensation beyond the grave. I have other reasons for being irritated at death: he is levelling to a degree which annoys me; he is a democrat, who attacks us with dynamite; he ought, at all events, to await our convenience and be at our call. I receive many times in the course of the year an anonymous letter, containing the following words, always in the same handwriting: "If there should be such a place as hell after all?" No doubt the pious person who writes to me is anxious for the salvation of my soul, and I am deeply thankful for the same. But hell is a hypothesis very far from being in conformity with what we know from other sources of the divine mercy. Moreover, I can lay my hand on my heart and say that if there is such a place I do not think that I have done anything which would consign me to it. A short stay in purgatory would, perhaps, be just; I would take the chance of this, as there would be Paradise afterwards, and there would be plenty of charitable persons to secure indulgences, by which my sojourn would be shortened. The infinite goodness which I have experienced in this world inspires me with the conviction that eternity is pervaded by a goodness not less infinite, in which I repose unlimited trust.

All that I have now to ask of the good genius which has so often guided, advised, and consoled me is a calm and sudden death at my appointed hour, be it near or distant. The Stoics maintained that one might have led a happy life in the belly of the bull of Phalaris. This is going too far. Suffering degrades, humiliates, and leads to blasphemy. The only acceptable death is the noble death, which is not a pathological accident, but a premeditated and precious end before the Everlasting. Death upon the battle-field is the grandest of all; but there are others which are illustrious. If at times I may have conceived the wish to be a senator, it is because I fancy that this function will, within some not distant interval, afford fine opportunities of being knocked on the head or shot--forms of death which are very preferable to a long illness, which kills you by inches and demolishes you bit by bit. God's will be done! I have little chance of adding much to my store of knowledge; I have a pretty accurate idea of the amount of truth which the human mind can, in the present stage of its development, discern. I should be very grieved to have to go through one of those periods of enfeeblement during which the man once endowed with strength and virtue is but the shadow and ruin of his former self; and often, to the delight of the ignorant, sets himself to demolish the life which he had so laboriously constructed. Such an old age is the worst gift which the gods can give to man. If such a fate be in store for me, I hasten to protest beforehand against the weaknesses which a softened brain might lead me to say or sign. It is the Renan, sane in body and in mind, as I am now--not the Renan half destroyed by death and no longer himself, as I shall be if my decomposition is gradual--whom I wish to be believed and listened to. I disavow the blasphemies to which in my last hour I might give way against the Almighty. The existence which was given me without my having asked for it has been a beneficent one for me. Were it offered to me, I would gladly accept it over again. The age in which I have lived will not probably count as the greatest, but it will doubtless be regarded as the most amusing. Unless my closing years have some very cruel trials in store, I shall have, in bidding farewell to life, to thank the cause of all good for the delightful excursion through reality which I have been enabled to make.