Renan, Joseph Ernest (1823–1892)

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Joseph Ernest Renan, the French critic and historian, was born in Tréguier, Brittany. He studied for the priesthood at seminaries in Paris but left the seminary of Saint-Sulpice in 1845 to devote himself to secular teaching and writing. He contributed to the Revue des deux mondes from 1851 and the Journal des débats from 1853. He received a docteur ès lettres in 1852, was elected a member of the Académie des Inscriptions in 1856, and was elected to the Académie Française in 1878. He was appointed professor of Hebrew at the Collège de France in 1862, but the course was then immediately suspended until 1870. In 1884 he became administrator of the Collège de France.

Renan's abandonment of his priestly calling was largely determined by the doubts engendered by his philological study of the Bible. After leaving the seminary, he was strongly influenced by Marcelin Berthelot, the chemist, with whom he maintained a lifelong friendship. Another major influence was German idealism, particularly that of G. W. F. Hegel.

In one sense Renan's life's work can be seen as an attempt to expand the horizons of scientific rationalism by incorporating into it what was valid in idealist philosophyprincipally the theme of development, particularly the theme of spontaneous evolution of the human mind. It was the historical aspect and the historical emphasis of Hegel's thought that appealed to Renan, for the cast of his own mind was fundamentally historical, not philosophical. Philosophy for him is not a discipline in its own right, and it is history, not philosophy, that should dominate science; "History is the necessary form of the science of the future." It is evident that Renan used the word science in the original sense of "knowledge"; "science" is not to be equated with the natural sciences. On the other hand, his philological and historical method is rationalistic and critical. He was interested, above all, in the evolution of languages and religions as manifestations of the development of the human mind, which is in turn the key to the universe. These manifestations and the universe itself, however, are concrete realities to be discovered through observation, experiment, criticism, and disciplined imagination. They are susceptible to this approach because they are the products of the interplay of natural causes according to constant laws. Renan denied in principle that there is any mystery in the world; what seemed mysterious would yield before the advancing frontiers of knowledge. This is the case in the human no less than in the natural sciences. Renan, in contact with working scientists, rejected the simplistic notions of natural science characteristic of the positivism of Auguste Comte. He maintained that progress in the natural as well as in the human sciences depends on human judgments of the balance of probabilities on the evidence. He further maintained that all reality is in some degree historical, that the natural sciences (paleontology, for example) reveal the remote parts of history, and that the human and natural sciences can and must therefore be of mutual help.

Just as he banished all traditional metaphysics from philosophy, Renan rejected any supernatural content in religion. The true religion of humankind, in the sense of "a belief accompanied by enthusiasm which crowns conviction with devotion and faith with sacrifice," is that of science (that is, knowledge). Renan's argument runs as follows: The universe is characterized by change according to "laws of progress" under which the human mind becomes increasingly conscious of itself and the ideal is increasingly manifested amid the real: "The goal of the world is the development of mind." At the end of the process God, in the sense not of a creative providence but of an immanent ideal, will be realized. Since this ideal consists in the complete development of consciousness and in the attainment by that consciousness of the full measure of beauty and morality of which it is capable, science must be the great task of humankind. This task must be approached in the spirit neither of mere curiosity nor of mere utilitarianism but in the true religious spirit, seeking revelation of the divine.

The above sketch of Renan's thought is based mainly on his youthful work, L'avenir de la science, written in 1848 but first published in 1890. In his later philosophical writing he modified, but did not abandon, the fundamental position adopted there. Political and social events in France, in particular, damped his optimism and strengthened his skeptical and ironical streak. He began to have doubts about the "religion of science" to which he had turned when he abandoned Roman Catholicism. He became less sure that men had the capacity to attain adequate knowledge, and some of his own writing became tentative, cast at times in the form of dialogue. In his professional historical work, however, which always remained his chief concern, he stood fast by his views on the development of rationality out of instinct and on the progressive realization of God on Earth. Even in the new preface that he added to L'avenir de la science on its publication late in his life, Renan declared that his religion was still "the progress of reason, that is to say, of science." He had been too sanguine, too anthropocentric, and not entirely emancipated from Catholicism; the growth of knowledge had not, in fact, clarified human destiny. He confessed that he did not see how humankind could maintain its ideals if deprived of its illusions, but he retained his faith in knowledge as the supreme pursuit.

See also Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Idealism; Modernism; Natural Law; Rationalism.


works by renan

Averroes et l'averroïsme. Paris: Durand, 1852.

Essais de morale et de critique. Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1859.

Vie de Jésus. Paris: Michel Lévy, 1863. Translated by C. E. Wilbour as The Life of Jesus. New York: Carleton, 1864.

Questions contemporaines. Paris: n.p., 1868.

Dialogues et fragments philosophiques. Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1876.

Souvenirs d'enfance et de jeunesse. Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1883. Translated by C. B. Pitman as Recollections of My Youth. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1929.

L'avenir de la science. Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1890. Translated by A. Vandam and C. Pitman as The Future of Science. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1891.

works on renan

Allier, Raoul. La philosophie d'Ernest Renan. Paris, 1895.

Berthelot, René. "La pensée philosophique de Renan." Revue de métaphysique et de morale 30 (1923): 365388.

Charlton, D. G. Positivist Thought in France during the Second Empire. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1959. See Ch. 6.

Cresson, André. Ernest Renan: Sa Vie, son oeuvre, avec un exposé de sa philosophie. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1949.

Mott, Lewis Freeman. Ernest Renan. New York and London: Appleton, 1921.

Séailles, Gabriel. Ernest Renan: Essai de biographie psychologique. Paris: Perrin, 1895.

W. M. Simon (1967)