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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Ernest Renan (1823–1892)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Ferdinand Brunetière (1849–1906)
 
IN the Preface to his ‘Recollections of Infancy and Youth,’ Ernest Renan himself recalled the legend of that town of Is, long ago engulfed by the sea in punishment of its crimes, the sound of whose bells one hears on calm days, rising from the depths of the abyss, where they continue always to call together for prayer a people who have not yet finished paying the debt of their repentance. And he adds: “It often seems to me that I have at the bottom of my heart a town of Is, that still resounds with bells continuing to call to sacred rites the faithful who no longer hear.” This was “the state of his soul” when, nearing the sixties, having almost completed his life work, he tried to represent himself by this poetic comparison; where he re-found, mingled with memories of his devout infancy, all the melancholy that weeps in the heart of the people and soil of Brittany. But he characterized at the same time, perhaps without knowing it, the nature of his own talent; and he gave us the reason of his great reputation as a writer. We also, during forty years, have heard sounding in his work the far-off bells of the town of Is; we have heard the thrill of their voice vibrating even in the unthanked works of the philologue and the exegete: and he himself, do what he might, has never been able to make himself wholly unfaithful to his first beginnings. The vase has kept its perfume, quo recens imbuta semel; and if the originality of Ernest Renan is anywhere, it is there, in the strange and often displeasing but sometimes exquisite combination, developing itself in him, of the sincerest emotionalism with the narrow rationalism of the scholar and the philologue. The originality of a great writer, in a literature like the French literature of our time, is always a little composite: we are Alexandrians; that is not our fault, and we could not be reproached with it if we did not abuse it by abandoning ourselves to the pleasure of dilettanteism. This is a reproach, as will be seen, that Renan did not always know how to avoid.  1
  He was born in 1823 at Tréguier, in the Department of the Côtes du Nord, under the shadow of an old cathedral full of mystery and incense; and he was educated for the priesthood. His family being humble, did his mother’s ambition go beyond a vague hope of some day seeing him the celebrant at the high altar of their native town. But from the depths of his province, his successes in scholarship attracted the attention of the Abbé Dupanloup; the same who afterwards became the blustering bishop of Orléans, but who was then only the converter of M. de Talleyrand—Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord—and the superior or director of the Little Seminary of St. Nicolas du Chardonnet. The Little Seminary of St. Nicolas du Chardonnet was a “free institution of secondary instruction,” where the best families of the Faubourg Saint-Germain sent their children to be educated. One of these children, afterwards the Duke de Noailles,—that Frenchman who since Tocqueville has understood America best,—kept a most vivid recollection of Renan; and I remember to have read some pages that he wrote upon his old schoolfellow,—pages that unfortunately have not seen nor perhaps ever will see the light.  2
  From St. Nicolas du Chardonnet, where rhetoric completed the course, Ernest Renan passed to the Seminary of Issy, which stands somewhat in the relation of a preparatory school to the great seminary of St. Sulpice; and it was there that he began to experience his first doubts as to the justifiability of the vocation to which until then he had believed himself called. In his ‘Recollections of Youth,’ which he wrote thirty years later, he undertook to explain the nature of that crisis; and one would suppose, to hear him speak, that neither the desire of the world,—that avidity of living which is so characteristic of the twentieth year,—nor philosophy even, nor the sudden revelation of science, played the least part in it. It would seem that his reasons for doubting were purely philological; and that textual criticism alone swept away the faith of his childhood. We shall not contradict this. But the publication of his ‘Correspondence’ has revealed to us since then another influence that affected the formation of his character,—the most powerful perhaps of all: it was that of his sister Henriette. This girl, poor and highly cultivated, who conducted far from her family, in Poland or Russia, the education of the children of a great lady, was gnawed by resentment; and in her triple rôle of woman, hired teacher, and native of Brittany, suffered cruelly from being unable to satisfy or even to relieve it by giving it expression. It was through her brother that she found her opportunity. As soon as the first doubts began to show themselves in the seminarist, it was his sister who encouraged them; or rather she communicated to him her own boldness of spirit: and putting her savings to the service of her passion, it was she who supplied Ernest Renan with the means of quitting St. Sulpice, and of resuming thus the life of a layman. We are able to-day to affirm that Henriette Renan was the great worker of her brother’s unbelief; she was the patient worker, the impassioned worker: and only later did exegesis or philology furnish Renan with the reasons he needed for establishing the convictions his sister had breathed into him.  3
  It is right to add that both were utterly sincere, and that for Ernest Renan the sacrifice was painful. He was born to be a priest, as he himself has said; and his life was to be, if one may use the expression, that of a priest of science. With that suppleness of mind which was one day to characterize him, and procure him the means of being more at ease in the midst of contradictions than are many believers in the fortress of their dogmatism, he would have found without doubt the art of reconciling his studious tastes with the practice and observances of a dead faith. But with a care for his dignity which did him honor, he did not desire this. He liked better—in this country of France, where the conduct of the priest who renounces the altar is so eagerly laid to the lightest [les plus “joyeux”]—that is to say, to the lowest—motives, he found it more loyal and noble to brave the anger of some, the pleasantries of others, the distrust of all. He resumed his studies; he took his university degrees; and in 1847 he made his début as “philologue” and as “Hebraïst,” by a brilliant stroke, submitting to the Institute of France the paper which became, a few years later, his ‘General and Comparative History of the Semitic Languages.’  4
  We have from him, written about the same time, an important book which appeared later—much later; indeed, in 1890: it is ‘The Future of Science,’ of which it can truthfully be said that this “future of science” is in his work that “thought of youth realized by ripe age,” that a great poet has set before the ambitions of young men as the image or the ideal of a noble life. The whole of Renan is in his ‘Future of Science’; he was to draw, all his life, upon his vast Purana, as he liked to call it himself: nevertheless, he was not to make for himself a law of conforming during forty years to all the convictions of the beginning of his career. But he was not to abjure them; and in the future as in the present, when it is desired to form a just opinion of the type of mind, the personal method, and even the work of Ernest Renan, it is in this vast book that they must be sought.  5
  Let us go on to consider his first great works given to the public: his thesis for the doctorate, upon ‘Averroës and Averroïsm,’ 1852; his ‘General History of the Semitic Languages,’ 1855; his ‘Studies of Religious History,’ 1857; his translation of the Book of Job, 1858; his book on the ‘Origin of Language,’ 1858; his ‘Essays, Moral and Critical,’ 1859. Their charm of style is incomparable; and never have subjects so severe been treated with more precision, ease, and lucidity. This is saying too little: for the real truth is that there is something “Platonic” in this first manner of Renan, were it only the art with which he envelops his most abstract ideas in the most ingenious metaphors, or the most captivating and poetic images. With him, as with the author of the ‘Cratylus’ and the ‘Gorgias,’ comparisons, in spite of the proverb, are often reasons, explanations, solutions. Equally notable in these first writings is a keen perception of the analogies between natural history and philology; which enables him to bind together by insensible transitions, and nuances contrived with infinite art, that which is most “human” in us—that is, language—with that which is most instinctive, which is the imprint we receive from surrounding nature. There is a good example of it in the development of the celebrated formula, “The desert is monotheistic”; and who does not see that on this basis it would indeed be possible to establish an entire new science, to be called “the Geography of the Religions”? As to the scientific or technical value of these same works, it is attested by the fact that in 1856 it came about that the Academy of Inscriptions elected the young author to succeed the brilliant historian of the ‘Conquest of England by the Normans.’ He was appointed librarian of the National Library in the department of manuscripts. The imperial government charged him with a mission to Phœnicia. But what is more interesting than all else to affirm here, is that from this time forth he knew what he wished to do; he approached his whole life work on all sides at once: and already good judges, like Sainte-Beuve in his ‘New Mondays,’ or like Edmond Schérer in his ‘Studies of Religious History,’ saw its first lineaments outlined.  6
  The attempt was novel and the undertaking bold. Convinced that all the great races of men which have appeared in turn or together upon the world’s stage have left us in the remains of their language, and still more conclusively in the monuments of their literature, the surest witnesses to their highest aspirations, it was precisely these aspirations that Renan proposed to rediscover; and he saw in philology, to use his own expression, “the science of the productions of the human soul.” Therefore, just as under the superfluous matter with which the hand of an ignorant copyist has covered a precious palimpsest, palæography endeavors to find again the authentic text of Virgil or Homer, and as soon as it begins to decipher it, calls to its aid, to further its efforts to fix it in a way to remain, all the resources of grammar, criticism, and history,—so Renan, brushing away the dust with which time has covered, as it were, the archives of humanity, proposed to re-establish their true meaning, altered or disfigured by superstition. From all these archives, he chose the religious archives as the most significant of all, to make them the object of a more profound study: the Vedas of the Hindus, the Zend-Avesta of the Persians, the Pentateuch of the Hebrews, the Koran of the Arabs; and in truth, since there is no religion which is not at the same time a system of the world, an expression of the relations that man believes that he sustains with the nature which surrounds him, and a solution of the enigma of destiny, what surer means could be imagined of penetrating more deeply into what is innermost in the mind of the races? Aryans or Semites, Mussulmans or Buddhists, it is in the intimate constitution of our race spirit that we find the first principle, the reason for the forms of our belief, the limits also of our religions! And believing that he saw at last in this very formula a way of reconciling the sincerity, the ardor of his idealism with the complete independence of his thought, Renan proposed to disengage “religion,” in so far as necessary or innate in humanity, from the midst of the “religions” which have been until now in history, at least from his point of view, only its multiple expression, changeable and superstitious. From Indian Buddhism, from Greek polytheism, from the monotheism of the Mussulman, and generally from the particular content of the symbolism, rites, and dogma of all the religions, when we have eliminated whatever they include that is “local,” dependent on time or circumstance,—when we have, as it were, purified them above all of whatever they include that is ethnical,—what remains? This is the thought that, floating about for the last hundred years, more or less, began a little while ago to condense, to take shape, to “concrete” itself so to speak, in the Congress of Religions at Chicago; and whatever may be its future, the propagation of this thought in the history of the contemporary mind is the work of Ernest Renan.  7
  Undoubtedly there is no need of showing in how many points it differs from the thought of Voltaire or of Condorcet; but in how many points also it approaches their thought! It comes so near it, that like the philosophy of the eighteenth century itself, it ends in the constitution of a “natural religion.” But while the natural religion of Voltaire is a creation of pure reason, a deduction of good sense, common-sense, opposed to all things of any depth that the positive religions teach, decidedly on the contrary it is from the fundamental history of the positive religions, studied scientifically and impartially, that the “natural religion” of Renan is derived; and hence its truths have no value except through their conformity to whatever is most concrete and most intimate in the world. Or in still other words, it appears that the same conclusion is reached, but by different roads,—and that is the important point here,—in every domain, in science itself, in physics or in psychology. “Discoveries” are nothing,—all lies in the manner in which they are made; and it is not the verities that enrich the human intellect, but the “methods” that have led to them. The exclusive employment of the philological or exegetical method suffices to establish between Voltaire’s religion and Renan’s a difference that Renan himself, in his latter years, by means of an affected impiety, could not wholly succeed in effacing. In vain did he compare David to Troppmann; and with less provoking coarseness, but in the same spirit, the prophet Amos to some living “anarchist.” These pleasantries belied his good taste; they led some persons to doubt his “sincerity”: but his “method” was the strongest; and it is this that keeps intact, with the greatness of his name, whatever is most original and solid in his work.  8
  Meanwhile the moment of the struggle approached. “When a man writes upon the rulers of Nineveh or upon the Pharaohs of Egypt,” said D. F. Strauss, “he can take only an historical interest! But Christianity is such a living thing, and the problem of its origin involves such consequences for the most immediate present, that critics who would bring only a purely historical interest to these questions are to be pitied for their imbecility.” Ernest Renan was not, he could not be, of the number of these critics. But above all, having set forth as he had done the question of the relation between the “religions” and “religion,” he could not leave Christianity out of his inquest. One expected him to deal with the question of the origins of Christianity. He must come to it. None of his works were of interest except as they led to that. To hesitate or to withdraw—that would have been to fail not only in courage, but in intellectual probity. He understood it himself; and in 1863 he published his ‘Life of Jesus.’ No book, as is well known, has made more noise, in France, in Europe, in the world; a very different noise from that raised by Strauss’s ‘Life of Jesus,’ or all the works of the School of Tübingen. No book has stirred up more polemics, more ardent or more violent. No book has engendered graver consequences. Whence came that tumult, and what did it mean? Just here, to understand it perfectly, it is necessary to develop Renan’s method somewhat; and in order to develop it, join to the ‘Life of Jesus’ the six volumes which followed it, and which are—‘The Apostles’ (1866), ‘St. Paul’ (1869), ‘Antichrist’ (1873), ‘The Gospels’ (1877), ‘The Christian Church’ (1879), and ‘Marcus Aurelius’ (1881).  9
  There is still some uncertainty or embarrassment in the ‘Life of Jesus’: the embarrassment or constraint of a man who does not know exactly how far he can push audacity, and who fears pushing it too far, lest he alienate from himself the very public he would like to reach. This is why Renan attempts to restore all that he takes away from the “divinity” of Jesus to his “humanity,” of which he traces an image exceeding in every way the proportions of humanity itself. Neither man nor God, his Jesus resembles sometimes those Christs of the Italian decadence—so admirable but so insignificant; of a beauty so perfect, or rather so commonplace; so well clothed, so well combed—seen in the pictures of Guido or of Domenichino; and sometimes one would say a giant, a “sombre giant,”—it is his very expression,—and not the greatest among us, but a force of nature necessarily incommensurable with our mediocrity. But beginning with ‘The Apostles,’ and especially with ‘St. Paul,’ the method acquires precision or character; and it is absolutely clear that its first principle is to beat down, so to speak, the history that till then had always been called “holy” or “sacred” to the level of other histories, of all histories; and it must be said, it was what no one since Spinoza, in his famous treatise ‘Theology and Politics,’ had dared to attempt. D. F. Strauss and Christian Baur themselves had appeared to believe that if the Old and the New Testament are like other books,—or, to go directly to the bottom of their thought, are books like the ‘Ramayana,’ for example, or like the ‘Zend-Avesta,’—nevertheless Biblical criticism does not forego her own principles, her own rules, her own methods; and it would seem from reading them that “exegesis” is something other and more than an application of philology. It is this distinction that Renan strives to efface. There is for him only one method, only one philology, as there is only one physics; and whatever may be the content of the Pentateuch or of the Gospels, it can be determined or interpreted by no other means than that used for the content of the Iliad or Odyssey. Until his work, one had taken for granted the entire authenticity of the form, according to the accepted importance of the subject: it is the contrary that ought to be done,—the conditions of the form should determine the value of the substance. It is not a question of knowing the worth of Christian ethics, nor whether the lofty character of Christianity is a proof of its divinity,—that would be theology! But who wrote the Gospel of Matthew or the Gospel of John, at what periods, in what places, under what circumstances, on what occasion, with what intention? There is the problem; and the object of a ‘History of the Origin of Christianity’ is to elucidate it. When the problem is solved, the history will be complete: and in fact, it is quite in this way that Renan conceived it; it is thus that he proposed to write it; it is the plan that he followed in writing it.  10
  Taine liked to say that what he most admired in the works of Renan, was “that one could not see how it was done”; and he was right, if he meant only the style or the “phrase,” which gives the impression of being born spontaneously, without effort and without art, under the pen of Renan. But he was in error if he meant the plan or arrangement of his books: it is, on the contrary, fully seen how that “is done.” Having collected all the texts that taken together constitute the New Testament,—and not neglecting to add to them the “apocryphal,”—Renan discussed them all as a philologue, according to the principles of his exegesis, and dated and classified them chronologically. He thus obtained a series of documents spread over a period of about a hundred and fifty or two hundred years, from Jesus to Marcus Aurelius. He then set himself to determine, according to chronological order, what might be called the logical relations between them; and—to take an example—very much as if, not knowing the authentic dates of Pascal’s ‘Thoughts’ or of the ‘Genius of Christianity,’ of Bunyan’s ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ or of Wesley’s sermons, we should nevertheless see without difficulty that these works could not answer to one and the same moment in the evolution of Christian thought. But the determination of that moment, in its turn, is not fixed by itself, nor above all by the sole consideration of that moment itself. Pascal and Bunyan are men who have lived, like all men, at a given time in history; who are related to other men by all their personal traits, who are contemporaries of Louis XIV. or Charles II., witnesses of the apogee of French greatness or of the corruption of England under the Stuarts; the latter a bourgeois, the former an artisan,—whence it follows that we cannot understand them unless we begin by replacing them in their milieu. It was this also that Renan did; and thus the general history of the Roman Empire—which is found to coincide with the history of the world—enters, so to speak, into the intervals of these documents, which it binds together, which it illumines with its light, which it sometimes overflows by the intensity of its interest. The propagation of the Christian idea becomes the soul or the active principle,—the principle of the movement of a history of which its triumph is the limit. The historians of the Empire had seen only the Empire in the Empire; and the excellent and learned Lenain de Tillemont would alone furnish a proof of it, since he wrote on the one hand the ‘History of the Emperors,’ and on the other the precious quarto of his ‘Ecclesiastical History,’ without ever conceiving the idea of intermingling them, as they were nevertheless intermingled in reality. Renan did this; and is it necessary to remark how this second application of the method confirmed, and in the eyes of many of his readers naturally contributed to aggravate, the first? The miraculous, the Divine element in the beginnings of Christianity became in some sort attenuated; or to change the figure, was the more “humanized” the more attentively the investigator appeared to be following its evolution. It only remained to dispel a kind of prestige in which all that is ancient is enveloped, major e longinquo reverentia; and the very logic of his method obliged Renan to perform this office.  11
  No means more simple nor more powerful in its simplicity. It is the theory of existing causes—that theory with which the names of Lyell and Darwin are associated—transferred from the order of natural history to that of high erudition. The active causes which without our suspecting it, deform, reform, and transform the physical universe under our eyes, are the same that formerly produced all that our fathers interpreted as gigantic and marvelous in the archives of the past. The drop of water wears away the stone; polyps have constructed islands—perhaps continents; and accumulated dust has become Himalayas and Alleghanies. In the same way, at no epoch in the short history of humanity have other forces been at work than those that are working still; and the present contains all that is essential to the explanation of the past. Hence in Renan’s writings, in his ‘History of the Origins of Christianity,’ those perpetual allusions to the present. He is of his time; and he never forgets it when he speaks of Marcus Aurelius or Nero, because man is always man, and the obscurity of the past could not be cleared away better than by the light of the present. Nothing creates itself nor is lost: he takes literally and in its entirety an axiom that is perhaps true only of the physical universe; and still it would be necessary to be very clear on this point, and he applies it rigorously to history. He goes further: not only does he explain the most considerable revolutions by the action of existing causes, but like Darwin and Lyell, he insinuates that there are no revolutions, strictly speaking; and for this reason, if he encounters some unique or extraordinary fact, he reduces it to a contemporary fact. The preaching of St. Paul on the Areopagus “must have had no more success than a visionary imbued with neo-Catholicism would have had, endeavoring in the time of the Empire to convert to his ideas an academician attached to the religion of Horace; or than a humanitarian socialist of our own day would have, were he to hold forth against English prejudices before the fellows of Oxford or of Cambridge.” These perpetual juxtapositions, which have pleased certain of Renan’s readers, have irritated many more of them; and their irritation was not unreasonable, if perhaps nothing has contributed so much as the cleverness, often deceiving, with which he uses them, to remodel the history of the origin of Christianity upon the plan of universal history. But what we cannot make too emphatic is, that they proceed from the very foundation of his method: this we have just tried to show; and it could be shown in another way by demonstrating that one has only to examine these same things somewhat closely, to discover that there is much in the method not only hazardous, conjectural, and arbitrary, but also ruinous.  12
  In truth, for all these comparisons, the propagation of Christianity in the world remains a unique fact,—a [Greek], according to the expression that Renan himself liked to employ; and I do not wish to say “a miracle,” but incontestably an effect that down to the present time has never been wholly explained by the reasoning of history. Renan knew it so well that he exhausted himself in subtle evasions of this conclusion of his own studies. And did he not do this even in the Preface to his ‘History of the People of Israel,’ in 1887, when he strove to distinguish what he called a “providential history” from a “miraculous history,” or when to the “Jewish miracle” he opposed the “Greek miracle”? But it is not possible to escape the consequences of a complete method by such distinctions; and in fact, without discussing here either the principles of his exegesis, which are not immovable, nor his opinion of the supernatural, which up to this point recognizes only the authority of physics, Renan has slipped up in his attempt to bring the history of the beginnings of Christianity to the level of other histories, and if one dares speak thus, to “secularize [laïciser] God himself.” This is why those who would like to know all that was extraordinary in the development of Christianity have only to inquire of Renan; for in truth no one has demonstrated better than he that “the Church is an edifice drawn from the void, a creation, the work of an all-powerful hand.” And I know very well he did not mean it thus, when he protested the purity of his intentions, and when with an irony slightly tinged with pharisaism, he bore witness to having himself “established for eternity the true God of the universe”! But we do not always the thing we would do, nor what we think we are doing; and in reality, by a strange mockery, it happens that the work to which Renan’s came nearest was the ‘Discourses’ of Bossuet on ‘Universal History.’  13
  In the mean time, and while he worked at his ‘Origins of Christianity,’ important changes were brought about in the world, in France, and in the condition of Ernest Renan himself. A political revolution had not only reinstated him in that chair of Hebrew at the College of France, of which he had formerly been dispossessed for having begun his teaching with a lesson on ‘The Part of the Semitic People in the History of Civilization’; but it had also made of him, without any effort of his own to obtain the honor, the theoretical or ideal head of what went by the name of anti-clericalism at that time among us. Immediately after the events of 1871—and indeed because he had pleaded with eloquence, two or three years before, the cause of higher instruction—we still insisted upon seeing in him the representative of that “high German culture” which passed at that time for the very mainspring of our misfortunes. It was naïvely believed that if France had been conquered by Germany, it was for lack of a few chairs of Sanskrit and laboratories of organic chemistry or experimental physiology! Finally, boldnesses that a little while before would have been pronounced reckless or sacrilegious, were hardly more than boldnesses: and it was easy to see this even in England: for example, where the distinguished author of the book on the ‘Origin of Species,’ who formerly had thought necessary to take many precautions, not only dispensed with them, but may be said to have blushed for them, in his book on ‘The Descent of Man.’ The reputation of Ernest Renan increased, so to speak, by the concurrence and combination of these circumstances. It was fostered all the more because, alone of all those who had maintained with him the struggle of free thought,—the Taines, the Littrés, the Vacherots, the Schérers,—he retracted nothing, he did not withdraw; he gave proof in his ‘Antichrist’ or in his ‘Marcus Aurelius’ of the same independence of mind as in his ‘Life of Jesus.’ His popularity was equal to his reputation. He became at last what is called a master of minds; criticism itself was appeased; and since a “literary sovereignty” is always necessary to us in France, in the decline of the old Hugo it was he whom our youth admired, followed, applauded.  14
  This could not be too deeply regretted. This popularity that hitherto he had not sought, whose advances he had even disdained in other days, pleased him; he breathed its incense with delight. Unhappily he wished to make himself worthy of it; and it was then that he wrote his ‘Caliban’ (1878), his ‘Fountain of Youth’ (1880), his ‘Priest of Nïmi’ (1885), his ‘Abbess of Jouarre’ (1886). The worst facetiæ of Voltaire are scarcely more trivial. But he did not stop there. He suffered those who sounded his praises to mock at all that he had believed,—at all that he still believed, that they might praise him better. He mocked at it himself; and seeing that everything was permitted him, he did just as he pleased. He taught that “as a man makes the beauty of that which he loves, so each one of us makes the sanctity of what he believes”; that “talent, genius, virtue even, are nothing by the side of beauty”; that among several means “of securing one’s salvation,” morphine or alcohol is no worse nor less certain than others; that a little crapulence and dissipation are not unbecoming to youth; and that after all, no one can say whether our duty in this world is not to “amuse ourselves.” Singular words these, which it is forever to be regretted that a man of the age, the position, the authority of Renan, should have dared let fall from his mouth. Having set out with ‘The Future of Science,’ to finish with ‘The Abbess of Jouarre’—what mockery and what debasement! But what greater debasement yet, if when he developed these paradoxes he hardly believed them himself,—happily for him, but unhappily for so many “Renanists” who did believe them.  15
  I hold in my hand a precious and curious copy of ‘The Abbess of Jouarre,’ bearing on the cover these few words of Renan: “À Mr B—— en souvenir de notre conversation d’hier” (To M. B—— in memory of our conversation of yesterday). I had been having a long talk with him about my intention of speaking of ‘The Abbess of Jouarre’; and doubtless fearing that I had not unraveled his exact thought, he had turned down the leaves of the volume, and underlined those places in the dialogue by which he desired to be judged. One of these places is the following: “O God of simple souls, why have I abandoned thee?” Did the great master of irony mock at me on that day? Several times since, I have asked myself this question; and without letting my amour-propre enter otherwise into the matter, it is indeed what I should have supposed, if afterwards we had not seen him quit this rôle and devote the last years of his life to composing his ‘History of the People of Israel.’ It is well known that he was not to see its completion; and it was not he who published the last volume.  16
  The author of ‘The Origins of Christianity’ is easily found there; and if the genius is not always the same, it is always the same method: only the structure is somewhat more summary and naked. The comparisons, the juxtapositions, that we have already noted, are more numerous here; not so felicitous, more flagrant if I may venture to say so, sometimes no less cynical, than those of Voltaire in his pamphlets. In vain is he Renan; it is not with impunity that a man quits the reading of the gospel to write ‘Caliban’ or ‘The Abbess of Jouarre,’ and later returns to the Pentateuch. Then too, some parts of it are—it must be said frankly—arid, unpleasant, tedious. The style no longer has the same ease, nor in the ease the same firmness. It is unequal, negligent, loaded with the terms of exact scholarship, science, and politics. But in default of a brilliant book, we still have here the idea of a brilliant book: and I know not if the history of Israel is explained by the struggle, often secular, of the Prophets against the Kings, of the religious ideal of the first against the political ideal of the second; but what cannot be doubted is, that this same idea throws a bright light on that history, and this is all that is of interest here. It may be well to add, however, that in ‘The History of the People of Israel’ as in ‘The History of the Origins of Christianity,’ the execution has finally turned against the design of the historian; and the continuity of prophetism in Israel remains a fact none the less inexplicable, and down to the present, no less inexplicable than even the propagation of Christianity in the Græco-Roman world.  17
  It now remains for us to speak of several other works of Renan; and in particular, of the many articles he wrote for ‘The Literary History of France.’ The most remarkable of all is his ‘Discourse on the State of the Fine Arts in the Fourteenth Century’; where he dealt with the conditions, the history, and the decline, of Gothic architecture, with no less ability than precision and brilliancy of style. No man assimilated with more ease the things that were most alien to him; and in such a way, as one of our old poets said, as to “turn them into blood and nourishment.” The analysis that he gave of the philosophy of Duns Scotus is still a masterpiece of lucidity. The same may be said of his articles on William de Nogaret and Pierre du Boys,—two of those jurists who have so greatly contributed to the formation of our monarchical unity; on Bertrand de Got, who was Pope in Avignon under the name of Clement V.; on Christine de Stommeln. This last article is particularly curious for the accent of far-away sympathy with which Renan cannot help speaking of the ecstasies and visions of the beatific one. Without doubt it is his works of this kind that have defended him against himself, and kept him from yielding completely to the breath of an unwholesome popularity. Let us return thanks for this to the ‘Literary History of France,’ and to the Benedictine brothers who began long ago that monumental series. The diversity of these works also explains that variety of learning which constitutes one of the charms of the style of Renan. It is filled with learned allusions, scarcely more than indicated with a rapid stroke that prolongs the sentence, leaving the impression that he always said less than he could have said.  18
  Much more than a philosopher or a “thinker,” indeed, Renan was a writer,—I mean an artist in style; and although he affected to discourage admiration, he lived on it. “The vanity of the man of letters is not mine,” said he; “and I see clearly that talent is of worth only because the world is childish.” He deceived himself. Talent is of worth because it is rare, greatly in demand, but seldom offered; and because there is a close connection between its rarity and the insufficiency that language opposes to the exact expression of thought. Again, he said upon this subject that “if the public had a strong enough head, he should content himself with the truth.” But what truth? Of what sort? For example, to how many people is it of any importance that one Artaxerxes was called “Long Hand” because he was ambidextrous, or because one of his arms was longer than the other? A ‘Provincial Letter’ of Pascal, a tragedy of Racine, concerns much more deeply the intelligence of man and the moral progress of humanity than the discovery of a new planet, than the exact reading of a Phœnician inscription, than the catalogue of the deeds of Philippe le Bel or Francis I.! Then finally, if humanity is alive to talent, that is doubtless a trait of our species, a characteristic of our make-up, which it would be as “childish” to complain of as it would be to regret having only two eyes or no wings whatever. All this Renan knew. But if he knew it, how and why did he so often say the contrary? And are we to attribute this to pure affectation on his part?  19
  No! There is something else there. His great merit as a writer is to have annexed in some sort, to the domain of general literature, an entire vast province that before his time was not included in it. Just as Buffon, and before Buffon, Montesquieu, put into general circulation, the latter “universal jurisprudence” and the former “natural history,” so Renan introduced exegesis and philology. But he made the mistake of shutting himself up in his domain; referring everything to it, as it were involuntarily; and of finally reaching a point where he no longer saw anything save at the angle and from the point of view of exegesis and philology. “Is he a good philologian?” is what he would willingly have inquired concerning any man, in order to regulate his opinion of him; and it may be said that in all things he thought only of how exegesis could profit by them. This initial error explains the paradoxes of Renan in style and art.  20
  From it have resulted other consequences as well; more serious and more lamentable. Of all the forms indeed that the concupiscence of the intellect—libido sciendi, as it is called in the Church—can put on, I believe that there is none more presumptuous than philological pride. Let us recall the measureless vanity of the scholars of the Renaissance, of a Poggio or of a Philelphus, when philology was yet taking only its first steps. In like manner, early introduced into the sanctuary of Oriental studies and into the recesses [les chapelles] of German exegesis, Renan drank in that sort of pride that the consciousness of knowing rare and singular things inspires. This pride in turn engendered that confidence in himself, which, beneath an appearance of dilettanteism, remained to his last day the essential characteristic of Renan. Yes, those who could take him for a skeptic have failed to understand him! But on the contrary, he continued to believe, without ever yielding an iota, that the secret of the universe was inclosed, as it were, in the recesses of Orientalism; and the great reproach that the future will make him—that even now is beginning to be made—is and will be, that he caused the most vital questions that exist for humanity to depend upon a philological problem. Would it be possible to conceive of a more audacious dogmatism; of a stranger confidence in the powers of the human intellect; of a more aristocratic pride?  21
  For to this too is traceable the great defect in the very style of Renan, which is an aristocratic style if ever there was one,—I mean a style that illuminates, that instructs, that pleases, that gives to the spirit or to the intellect all the satisfaction, let us even say all the delights, that can be expected of a great writer; but which does not move us, does not go to the heart, does not reach the spot where resolutions take shape: an egoistic style, if I may so say, of which the chief result is to create admiration of the writer’s erudition, knowledge, and “virtuosity.” It has been possible to reproach some of Renan’s contemporaries—the author of the ‘Barbaric Poems,’ for example, or the author of ‘Salammbô’—that they lacked feeling. But how much more was not Renan lacking in it; and what can we say, what could we find in his work that he loved? This is why the reading of it is at once instructive and blighting. It is also at times displeasing, when he makes us feel how much he is himself above us who read him; as when he writes, for example, that “few persons have the right to disbelieve Christianity,” or twenty other sentences that breathe no less a consciousness of superiority.  22
  Happily for him and for us, as we said at the beginning, the Breton in him has lived on under the philologue, and the bells of the town of Is have kept on sounding in his heart. Whatever diligence he has shown besides in reducing the religious problem to the terms of a strictly philological problem, he has been unable to make a complete success of it. No more has he succeeded in separating religion from the religions; that is to say, in isolating the metaphysical or moral idea of the lessons that form the basis of its authority, from the observances that are its ritual envelope, from the symbols that are the very life of it, from the great hopes that are the poetry of it, and from the love that is the soul of it. And something of all this passed into his style. He could not help yielding, abandoning himself to the attraction of that which he tried to describe or to explain. So much so, that by a final irony which would perhaps have “amused” him, what is best in his work, the freshest, the truly exquisite, is what he put there, not at all unconsciously, but better still, in order to combat it; and his most beautiful pages are beautiful only because they are inspired, penetrated, impregnated, with the sense of the grandeur and value of all that he worked forty years to destroy.  23
 
 
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