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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Aristocratic Vision of M. Renan
By Paul Bourget (1852–1935)
 
From the ‘Study of M. Renan’

THE SENTIMENTS I have tried to analyze are evidently of a rare order, and presuppose an exceptional culture. Delicate flowers will not grow in the winds and fitful sunshine of the public road. Their perfumed corollas expand only in the mellowed air of hot-houses. Science is a kind of hot-house which guards superior minds from the brutalities of real life. The author of ‘Dialogues philosophiques’ is an exceptional person. He is a superior man, to me a term very strong in its simplicity; one might say almost that he is the superior man. Moreover, a certain air of imperceptible irony and transcendental disdain shows that he is conscious of this superiority. Disregard of vulgar opinion is very evident in his pages. The reserved elegance of a style which never emphasizes any special intention; the subtle arguments which never take the imperative tone; a strength of feelings, none of which are exaggerated for the sake of sympathy,—all would reveal his aristocratic ideal, even if he had not often declared that there is one domain for the initiated and another for the simple. His political work on ‘Reforme intellectuelle et morale’ contains the strongest argument of the last hundred years against the very principle of democracy, natural equality. His two symbolic dramas—‘Caliban’ and ‘Eau de Jouvence’—may be summed up in this reflection of the prior of Chartreux, seated in his stall while the organ plays alone, and the crowd presses around the crowned Caliban: “All civilization is the work of aristocrats.” This truth the demagogue Caliban himself recognizes, since as soon as possessed of the palace and power of Prospero, he assumes aristocratic ways; and M. Renan, always desirous of correcting by a smile even his dearest affirmations, carefully adds that the monster of the island became a very fair prince. Prospero proclaims that material work is the slave of spiritual work. Everything must aid him who prays,—that is, who thinks. Democratic minds, which do not admit individual subordination to a general achievement, consider this a monstrous doctrine.  1
  Finally, the ‘Dialogues philosophiques,’ in the part entitled ‘Dreams,’ contain a complete plan for the subjection of the greatest number by a chosen few…. Is it bold to consider his feeling for his native soil the germ of his aristocratic ideal?  2
  Other determining circumstances unite with it, all of which may be summed up in the term “superior man,” which seems simple enough, but which may be decomposed into a series of complex characters. The superior man differs from the man of genius, who may be unintelligent enough, and from the man of talent, who is often a mere specialist, in an ability to form general ideas about everything. If this power of generalizing is not combined with equal creative power, the superior man remains a critic. But if he possesses both, he is an exceptional being and the highest conceivable type, that of conscious genius. Cæsar is an example of this in politics; Da Vinci in painting; and the great Goethe in literature. Even if he does not reach these heights, the superior man is one of the most useful instruments of society. For universal comprehension usually includes a universal aptitude. Is not this demonstrated in England, where favorable conditions have developed many examples? What are great political characters like Disraeli and Macaulay, who could apply an ever-ready intelligence to literary composition and parliamentary struggles, to financial interests and diplomatic difficulties, but superior men?  3
  Conceive such a one thrown into the democratic current by chances of birth, and you will realize the contrasts of environment and character which have led M. Renan to the conception of an ideal so unusual. Democracy seems at a first glance very favorable to talent, for it opens all doors to all efforts. But at the same time it strengthens the hard law of competition. Therefore it requires a greater specialization. Then, democracy is founded upon equality, of which the logical consequence is universal suffrage. It needs little analysis to know that universal suffrage is hostile to the superior man. The mental attitudes resulting from advanced study are usually—multiplicity of points of view; a taste for nice distinctions; a disdain for absolute statement; and search for intricate solutions;—all of which are refinements antagonistic to the popular love of positive assertion. Therefore a superior man finds the morals of a democracy unfavorable to his development, while its laws hold him back from public affairs. So, many distinguished minds in France to-day are excluded from government; or if they have triumphed over the ostracism to which their divorce from common passions condemns them, it is because they disguise this divorce under professions which are void of intellectual impartiality. The superior man exiled in what Sainte-Beuve calls “the ivory tower” watches the drama of national life as one who sees its future possibilities. Is it necessary to recall that one of this class of élite has shown a veritable gift of prophecy? To cite only one example, were not the disasters of 1870 predicted with surprising exactness in the ‘France nouvelle’ of Prévost-Paradol, victim like Renan of universal suffrage? It is evident that a strange melancholy oppresses these lofty minds, weighed down under the conviction of their ideal strength and their real weakness. The insolent triumph of the mediocre adds to this sadness. But it is not quite without sweetness. It has something of the pleasure extolled by Lucretius in the famous verses on those temples of the calm faith from which the sage regards the wild struggle of the passions. But the superior man of to-day will never know the full enjoyment which the nervous systems of the ancients permitted them. The mind can do a great deal, but it is powerless to remodel our native faculties. Whether we hate or venerate the democracy, we are its sons and inherit its imperious need of combat. The obscure and revolutionary nineteenth century is in our blood, and prohibits the inner immobility, the mental quiet, celebrated by the Epicureans of Greece and Rome. There is agitation in our serenities, as in our submissions. Catholics or atheists, monarchists or republicans, all the offspring of this age of anguish have the anxious look, the quaking heart, the trembling hands of the great battle of the time. Even those who try to stand aloof share the common anxiety. They too are revolutionists like the others, but they oppose human stupidity, and their mute rebellion is called disdain.  4
  It would be interesting to study among contemporary scholars the different forms of this disdain. Does not the exaggeration of technical beauties, which is a feature of the school of poets ironically called Parnassians, proceed from this sentiment of Odi profanum vulgus? Did not Gustave Flaubert compose ‘Bouvard et Péchuchet’ under this inspiration? Would Taine have undertaken his ‘Histoire des origines de la France contemporaine’ if he had not been tormented by a longing to understand the democratic tide which was sweeping him away? But no writer has felt more strongly than M. Renan the antithesis of the superior man and democracy. One must read and re-read those pages of the ‘Dialogues’ where Theoctiste imagines the victory of a future oligarchy, to appreciate the intensity of passion employed in the examination of these problems. He conceives that the learned will secure formidable destructive agents, requiring the most delicate calculations and much abstract knowledge. Then, exulting in their power, the dreamer exclaims:—“Thus the forces of humanity would some day be held in a few hands, and would be possessed by a league which could rule the existence of the planet and terrorize the whole world. If those most endowed with reason had ability to destroy the planet, their sovereignty would be established. The privileged class would reign by absolute terror, since they would have the existence of all in their hands. They would be almost gods, and then would be realized the theological state dreamed by the poet for primitive humanity: ‘Primus in orbe Deos fecit timor.’” We must not attach more reality to this tragic fancy than the author intended, but it shows an incurably wounded heart; and proves that the scholar who drew this gloomy picture has no great tenderness for the favorite Utopias of the age.  5
  An open break is possible between democracy and science, the two great forces of modern society. Certainly while the tendency of the first is to level, that of the second is to create differences. “Knowledge is power,” said the inductive philosopher. To know ten times as much as another is to be ten times as capable; and as intellectual inequality forbids a uniform degree of information, there is increasing opposition between democratic tendencies and the social results of science. There are several solutions, as in nearly all the complicated problems as to the future. In formulating the hypothesis of the ‘Dialogues,’ M. Renan indicates one of them. Another may be simply an application of science to the organization of societies. An unprejudiced consideration of the principles upon which our nineteenth-century society is founded proves their Cartesian character, very different already from modern philosophy. But there is a secret movement of minds. The conceptions of Darwin and Herbert Spencer permeate the new ones. We must have faith in the worth of the doctrines which will eventually overthrow politics, as well as natural science and literature. A time is coming when a society will not seem to the philosophers of evolution as it did to the last inheritors of the classic spirit. It will appear, not the operation of a logical contract, but the action of a confederation of organisms of which the cell is the unit. This is very different from the reigning idea. It is exclusive of any difference between democrat and aristocrat, for such difference means an arbitrary classification of the different social elements. If this consoling vision is not a simple chimera, it may be remembered that the great scorners like M. Renan are active workmen for its accomplishment, in that they formulate it very exactly, and face the coming conflict with sorrowfully keen relief.  6
  These summary notes upon one of our most remarkable men only indicate the three or four states of conscience which he represents to the young people who read his books and meditate upon their eloquent, disquieting pages. No other author offers more that is fresh in thought and feeling, for no other employs greater sincerity in thought and in exposition of sentiment. Whoever studies the springs of moral life in the rising generation, meets everywhere his influence. Not before a hundred years hence can his achievement be measured. If there are any who do not worship sincerity and reverence, they should devote themselves to the books of M. Renan; for no one has practiced these qualities with greater constancy than he, who on the first page of his ‘Vie de Jésus’ invokes the pure spirit of the venerated Dead, and who prayed to him in a melancholy petition to the unattainable—“O good Genius, reveal to me whom you love, the truths which govern death, keep one from fearing and make one almost love it!”  7
 
 
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