Ernest Renan was one of the most widely read French authors of the nineteenth century, which is remarkable given that he was committed to the life of the research scholar. When he did choose to comment on current affairs, his sometimes ambiguous political positions made him an author particularly prone to misinterpretation. Yet it is these very ambiguities that make Renan a significant figure. His interpretation of Christianity, his views on democracy and on the nation-state, among others, give us an important insight into the contradictions of political life in late nineteenth-century France.
Renan was born in 1823 in Tréguier in Brittany. The most significant event in his early years was his break with Catholicism at age 22. As a successful schoolboy, he had followed the traditional path to priesthood, entering the famous Parisian seminary of Saint-Sulpice in 1843. However, by the end of 1845 he had left, “never again to climb the steps of Saint Sulpice in cassocks,” as he put it in his widely read Souvenirs d'enfance et de jeunesse (Recollections of Childhood and Youth) (1883). From then on, he was committed to the life of academia: He completed his doctoral thesis on Averroes in 1852 in Paris, participated in state-sponsored archaeological expeditions to the Holy Land in 1860 to 1861, and was eventually appointed Professor of Hebraic, Chaldean, and Syrian Languages at the Collège de France in 1862.
But the story of Renan's conversion away from Catholicism remains significant. Outside the seminary, Renan had been introduced to Romantic authors such as Victor Hugo and the great French historian Jules Michelet. He had also become increasingly interested in the historical study of language, under the influence of Abbé Le Hir and, later, the noted Orientalist Eugène Burnouf. Finally, he was deeply impressed with German philosophy—especially that of Johann Gottfried von Herder and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Renan's letters throughout the early 1840s testify to his growing skepticism toward the Christian faith. This and his dedication to science—understood in the mid-nineteenth-century French sense as a commitment to the philosophical principles of empiricism—fatally undermined his faith.
Nevertheless, the influence of religion was to cast a long shadow over Renan's professional life. By far his most famous work was La Vie de Jésus (Life of Jesus) (1864), a book that attempted to historicize and humanize Jesus. It caused immediate uproar. It went through over 100 printings in 5 years and was translated into over 14 different languages. Renan's text was branded as blasphemous, and he was the target of bitter recriminations: For many orthodox Catholics, the book represented the pernicious creep of anticlericalism.
Renan himself was surprised at the violent responses to his work. Nevertheless, he continued to tackle religious themes in his academic life. La Vie de Jésus was only one of seven volumes in his monumental and carefully researched work Les Origines du Christianisme (Origins of Christianity) (1864-1882), in which he explored the roots of the Christian faith. By the time he finished, he had been elected to the Académie Française (1878) and he extended his project with the Histoire du peuple d'Israel (History of the People of Israel) (1882-1892), a further five volumes devoted to the history of the Jewish people. Even if Renan had left Catholicism behind in his early twenties, it continued to fascinate him until his death.
Today, Renan is perhaps better remembered for his political texts, in particular his short lecture Qu'est ce que la nation? (What Is a Nation?) (1882). A member of the “generation of 1848”—that is, those who came of age during the Revolution of 1848—he belonged to the political and intellectual world of contemporaries such as Gustave Flaubert and Hippolyte Taine. Their worldview was defined by France's second, short-lived, republic (1848-1851) and, significantly, the first attempt to implement universal male suffrage. The majority of “the generation of 1848” also lived to see in 1870 to 1871 another traumatic upheaval in French politics: the violent crushing of the Paris Commune and the tragedy of the Franco-Prussian War, in which French forces were roundly defeated. Both events prompted national soul-searching, as French thinkers grappled with the country's perceived decline.
Despite Renan's academic interests, he remained a regular commentator on current affairs. Broadly speaking, we can identify three strands in his political thought. The first is a skepticism toward universal suffrage and democracy on the grounds that the rule of the masses is, at best, problematic and, at worst, dangerous. The second is a consistent belief in science, progress, and the pursuit of wisdom, which led Renan to support the creation and development of an educated, rational elite with liberal inclination. Finally, he believed in the importance of the nation-state, not as an ethnic or territorial category, but as a shared community of historical and cultural values—or what he famously called “an everyday plebiscite.”
There is ample (and not always consistent) evidence for these positions in such youthful work as his L'Avenir de la Science (The Future of Science) (1848, published 1890) or in later and more polemical pamphlets, such as La réforme intellectuelle et morale de la France (The Intellectual and Moral Reform of France) (1871). Only twice did Renan actually participate actively in politics, standing for election in 1869 and 1878. Both attempts were unsuccessful, but the political programs he proposed highlighted his liberal credentials. In 1869, for instance, he fought on a platform that condemned war as a solution to the Prussian threat and advocated a stable constitutional monarchy or parliamentary democracy.
Nevertheless, the interpretation of Renan's legacy has been hotly contested. For some, Renan was a liberal—in short, an elitist, who was critical of France's violent political history. Others—particularly the leading political figures of the Third Republic (1875-1944)—saw him as a champion of the republican values of anticlericalism and rational enlightenment. Yet others have seen in his thought the harbinger of French fascism; they cite especially Renan's direct influence on right-wing political thinkers of the early twentieth century, such as Maurice Barrès. While contemporary commentators now broadly agree that Renan was a member of France's nineteenth-century liberal elite, his complex legacy shows that he belonged to a France that, like him, was still far from having resolved its contradictions.
Civic Republicanism, Jacobinism, Liberalism, Romanticism
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