Renan was a French philosopher and writer, famous for his definition
of a nation given in his 1882 discourse Qu'est-ce qu'une nation?
Renan defined a nation by the willfullness to live together, as
opposed to the German definition, formulated by Fichte, which defined
it by objective criteria such as a "race" or an "ethnic
group" (the Volk) sharing common characteristics (language,
etc.). Henceforth, writing in the midst of the dispute concerning
the Alsace-Lorraine region, he declared that the existence of a
nation was based on a "daily referendum" (un plébiscite
de tous les jours).
was born at Tréguier in Brittany of a family of fishermen.
His grandfather, having made a small fortune with his fishing-shack,
bought a house at Tréguier and settled there, and his father,
captain of a small cutter and an ardent republican, married the
daughter of Royalist tradesmen from the neighbouring town of Lannion.
his life, Renan felt torn between his father's and his mother's
political beliefs. He was five when his father died, and his sister,
Henriette, twelve years his senior, became the moral head of the
household. Having in vain attempted to keep a school for girls
at Tréguier, she departed and went to Paris as teacher
in a young ladies' boarding-school.
meanwhile, was educated in the ecclesiastical seminary of his
native place. His school reports describe him as "docile,
patient, diligent, painstaking, thorough". While the priests
grounded him in mathematics and Latin, his mother completed his
education. She was half Breton. Her paternal ancestors came from
Bordeaux, and Renan used to say that in his own nature the Gascon
and the Breton were constantly at odds.
the summer of 1838, Renan won all the prizes at the college of
Tréguier. His sister told the doctor of the school in Paris
where she taught, and he gave news to FAP Dupanloup, who was involved
in organizing the ecclesiastical college of St Nicholas du Chardonnet,
a school in which the young Catholic nobility and the most gifted
pupils of the Catholic seminaries were to be educated together,
with a view to cementing the bond between the aristocracy and
sent for Renan, who was only fifteen and had never been outside
Brittany. "I learned with stupor that knowledge was not a
privilege of the church ... I awoke to the meaning of the words
talent, fame, celebrity." Religion seemed to him wholly different
in Tréguier and in Paris. The superficial, brilliant, pseudo-scientific
Catholicism of the capital did not satisfy Renan, who had accepted
the austere faith of his Breton masters.
1840, Renan left St Nicholas to study philosophy at the seminary
of Issy-les-Moulineaux. He entered with a passion for Catholic
scholasticism. The rhetoric of St Nicholas had wearied him, and
his serious intelligence hoped to satisfy itself with the vast
and solid material of Catholic theology. Thomas Reid and Nicolas
Malebranche first attracted him among the philosophers, and, after
these, he turned to Georg Hegel, Immanuel Kant, and Herder.
began to see an essential contradiction between the metaphysics
which he studied and the faith he professed, but an appetite for
truths that can be verified restrained his scepticism. "Philosophy
excites and only half satisfies the appetite for truth; I am eager
for mathematics," he wrote to Henriette. Henriette had accepted
in the family of Count Zamoyski an engagement more lucrative than
her former place. She exercised the strongest influence over her
brother, and her published letters reveal a mind almost equal,
a moral nature superior, to his own.
was not mathematics but philology which was to settle Renan's
gathering doubts. His course completed at Issy, he entered the
college of St Sulpice in order to take his degree in philology
prior to entering the church, and, here, he began the study of
Hebrew. He saw that the second part of Isaiah differs from the
first not only in style but in date, that the grammar and the
history of the Pentateuch are later than the time of Moses, and
that the Book of Daniel is clearly written centuries after the
time in which it is set.
Renan felt himself cut off from the communion of saints, yet desired
to live the life of a Catholic priest. The struggle between vocation
and conviction was won by conviction. In October 1845, Renan left
St Sulpice for Stanislas, a lay college of the Oratorians. Still
feeling too much under the domination of the church, he reluctantly
broke the last tie which bound him to the religious life and entered
M. Crouzet's school for boys as an usher.
brought up by priests, was to accept the scientific ideal with
an extraordinary expansion of all his faculties. He became ravished
by the splendour of the cosmos. At the end of his life, he wrote
of Amiel, "The man who has time to keep a private diary has
never understood the immensity of the universe." The certitudes
of physical and natural science were revealed to Renan in 1846
by the chemist Marcellin Berthelot, then a boy of eighteen, his
pupil at M. Crouzet's school.
the day of Renan's death, their friendship continued. Renan was
occupied as usher only in the evenings. In the daytime, he continued
his researches in Semitic philology. In 1847, he obtained the
Volney prize, one of the principal distinctions awarded by the
Academy of Inscriptions, for the manuscript of his "General
History of Semitic Languages." In 1847, he took his degree
as Agrégé de Philosophie - that is to say, fellow
of the university - and was offered a place as master in the lycée
was not only a scholar. In St. Paul, as in the Apostles, he shows
his concern with the larger social life, his sense of fraternity,
and a revival of the democratic sentiment which had inspired L'Avenir
de la science. In 1869, he presented himself as the candidate
of the liberal opposition at the parliamentary election for Meaux.
While his temper had become less aristocratic, his liberalism
had grown more tolerant.
the eve of its dissolution, Renan was half prepared to accept
the Empire, and, had he been elected to the Chamber of Deputies,
he would have joined the group of l'Empire liberal, but he was
not elected. A year later, war was declared with Germany; the
Empire fell, and Napoleon III went into exile. The Franco-German
War was a turning-point in Renan's history. Germany had always
been to him the asylum of thought and disinterested science. Now,
he saw the land of his ideal destroy and ruin the land of his
birth; he beheld the German no longer as a priest, but as an invader.
La Réforme intellectuelle et morale (1871), Renan tried
to safeguard France's future. Yet, he was still under the influence
of Germany. The ideal and the discipline which he proposed to
his defeated country were those of her conqueror--a feudal society,
a monarchical government, an élite which the rest of the
nation exists merely to support and nourish; an ideal of honour
and duty imposed by a chosen few on the recalcitrant and subject
errors of the Commune confirmed Renan in this reaction. At the
same time, the irony always perceptible in his work grows more
bitter. His Dialogues philosophiques, written in 1871, his Ecclesiastes
(1882) and his Antichrist (1876) (the fourth volume of the Origins
of Christianity, dealing with the reign of Nero) are incomparable
in their literary genius, but they are examples of a disenchanted
and sceptical temper.
had vainly tried to make his country follow his precepts. He resigned
himself to watch her drift towards perdition. The progress of
events showed him, on the contrary, a France which, every day,
left a little stronger, and he roused himself from his disbelieving,
disillusioned mood and observed with interest the struggle for
justice and liberty of a democratic society. His mind was the
broadest of the age.
fifth and sixth volumes of the Origins of Christianity (the Christian
Church and Marcus Aurelius) show him reconciled with democracy,
confident in the gradual ascent of man, aware that the greatest
catastrophes do not really interrupt the sure if imperceptible
progress of the world and reconciled, also, if not with the truths,
at least with the moral beauties of Catholicism and with the remembrance
of his pious youth.
old age, the philosopher cast a glance at his childhood. He was
nearly sixty when, in 1883, he published the Souvenirs d'enfance
et de jeunesse, the work by which he is chiefly known. They possess
that lyric note of personal utterance which the public prizes
in a man already famous. They showed the blasé modern reader
that a world no less poetic, no less primitive than that of the
Origins of Christianity exists or still existed within living
memory on the northwestern coast of France.
have the Celtic magic of ancient romance and the simplicity, the
naturalness, and the veracity which the 19th century prized so
highly. But his Ecclesiastes, published a few months earlier,
his Drames philosophiques, collected in 1888, give a more adequate
image of his fastidious critical, disenchanted, yet optimistic
show the attitude towards uncultured Socialism of a philosopher
liberal by conviction, by temperament an aristocrat. We learn
in them how Caliban (democracy), the mindless brute, educated
to his own responsibility, makes after all an adequate ruler;
how Prospero (the aristocratic principle, or, if we will, the
mind) accepts his dethronement for the sake of greater liberty
in the intellectual world, since Caliban proves an effective policeman
and leaves his superiors a free hand in the laboratory; how Ariel
(the religious principle) acquires a firmer hold on life and no
longer gives up the ghost at the faintest hint of change. Indeed,
Ariel flourishes in the service of Prospero under the external
government of the many-headed brute. Religion and knowledge are
as imperishable as the world they dignify. Thus, out of the depths
rises unvanquished the essential idealism of Renan.
was a great worker. At sixty years of age, having finished the
Origins of Christianity, he began his History of Israel, based
on a lifelong study of the Old Testament and on the Corpus Inscriptionum
Semiticarum, published by the Académie des Inscriptions
under Renan's direction from the year 1881 till the end of his
life. The first volume of the History of Israel appeared in 1887;
the third, in 1891; the last two posthumously.
a history of facts and theories, the book has many faults; as
an essay on the evolution of the religious idea, it is (despite
some passages of frivolity, irony, or incoherence) of extraordinary
importance; as a reflection of the mind of Renan, it is the most
lifelike of images. In a volume of collected essays, Feuilles
détachées, published also in 1891, we find the same
mental attitude, an affirmation of the necessity of piety independent
his last years, he received many honours, and was made an administrator
of the College de France and grand officer of the Legion of Honour.
Two volumes of the History of Israel, his correspondence with
his sister Henriette, his Letters to M. Berthelot, and the History
of the Religious Policy of Philippe-le-Bel, which he wrote in
the years immediately before his marriage, all appeared during
the last eight years of the 19th century.
died after a few days' illness in 1892, and was buried in the
Cimetière de Montmartre in the Montmartre Quarter of Paris.