Renan, Ernest

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RENAN, ERNEST (18231892) was a French Orientalist and essayist. Joseph Ernest Renan is a fragment of a mirror held up to nineteenth-century France. His life and work reflect especially the appeal of positivist science and its conflict with religion, particularly Roman Catholicism.

Born on February 28, 1823, in Tréguier, Brittany, Renan was raised a Roman Catholic and educated in seminaries until, at the age of twenty-two, he left both the seminary and the church. He wrote to his spiritual director that the church would not allow him the freedom to pursue the kind of scientific study that had increasingly fascinated him. Three years later, in 1848, he wrote L'avenir de la science (The Future of Science), a kind of apologia for his conversion to positivist science. In it Renan developed the ideas that would govern virtually all his later work. First, he thought that science would eventually supplant religion in developed societies. "Only science," he wrote, "can resolve eternal human problems." Second, he understood science as an inquiry that exhibits a comparative, skeptical, and nonjudgmental attitude toward its subject, and so distinguishes itself from doctrinaire religion as well as eighteenth-century rationalism.

The Future of Science was not published until 1890, two years before Renan's death; nevertheless, his attitude toward and confidence in science showed clearly in his work on Middle Eastern languages and religion. Renan's interest in the Middle East began during his seminary study in Paris, where he worked under Arthur Le Hir and Étienne Marc Quatremère. In 1848 he won the prestigious Prix Volney for his essay on the history of Semitic languages. In 1852 he was appointed an assistant to the keeper of Eastern manuscripts at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, where he was in charge of Syrian, Sabaean, and Ethiopian manuscripts; this work, he once said, was the most rewarding he had done. During the same period, he published his doctoral thesis on the Arab philosopher Ibn Rushd (Averroës).

As a result of this work Renan had begun to earn a reputation as an Orientalist and so was able to secure a place on a scientific mission to Syria that was organized under the protection of the troops of Napoleon III, who were occupying Beirut. Despite the tragedy of the death of his sister, Henriette, who had always aided and supported his work and who had accompanied him and his wife to Syria, the trip was a milestone for Renan because it cemented his interest in the Middle East and set him to work on what would be the major accomplishment of his professional life, the seven-volume Histoire des origines du christianisme (18631881) and its five-volume supplement, Histoire du peuple d'Israël (18871893).

The first volume of Origines was the controversial and enormously popular Vie de Jésus (Life of Jesus). This little book, which first appeared in 1863, gave educated Frenchmen Renan's idiosyncratic portrait of Jesus. What made the book remarkable in its time, however, was its effort to draw the portrait of Jesus only along the lines roughed out by historical criticism and to project it against the larger background of the Middle Eastern religions. It showed Renan's comparative method at work, and because it failed to make or support the traditional religious claims about the divinity of Jesus or the uniqueness of Christian religion, it was widely condemned by the churches.

Renan returned to the Middle East again in 1864, this time to Egypt, Asia Minor, and Greece. It was on this trip that Renan composed the Prière sur l'Acropole, which expressed what he called his religious revelation that the perfection promised by Judaism, Islam, and Christianity actually existed in the Greek civilization that created science, art, and philosophy. Since religion is, in Renan's view, the way people often satisfy their craving for such perfection, he continued to pursue his research into the relationships among Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. His thesis was that Christianity adapted Judaism to the European temperament and Islam adapted it to the Arab.

Renan's historical sense was not always the best, and he clearly preferred to draw his conclusions from what he thought were psychological patterns of the races and religions he studied. He speculated a good deal more freely than scholars are accustomed to do today (for example, he described in detail the physical appearance of Paul of Tarsus), and he was ready to base his judgments on aesthetic principles as much as on historical fact. However, his prose style was provocative and so effective that he often had an impact in excess of the merits of his research. His work earned him appointment as professor of history of religions at the Collège de France in 1862 and again in 1870. In 1878 he was elected to the Académie Française. He died in Paris on October 2, 1892.

Above all, Renan has reserved a place for himself in the religious history of France because he, as much as anyone else, focused public attention on the potential and the consequences of a scientific approach to religious questions. Particularly for the group of French Catholic scholars who followed him, he served as a challenge and a warning to their effort to modernize the church.


Renan's works have been published in many languages. In French, his Œuvres complètes, 10 vols., edited by Henriette Psichari (Paris, 19471961), is the basic source. Among his works that have appeared in English editions, translated by various hands, are The Future of Science, History of the People of Israel, The Life of Jesus, and Studies in Religious History. Renan's two autobiographical pieces are also available under the English title The Memoirs of Ernest Renan (London, 1935).

The standard work on Renan in English is Francis Espinasse's The Life of Ernest Renan (1895; reprint, Boston, 1980), written only a few years after Renan's death. H. W. Wardman's Ernest Renan (London, 1964) is another English-language study. A useful bibliography can be found in Jacques Waardenburg's Classical Approaches to the Study of Religion, vol. 2 (The Hague, 1974), pp. 228241.

New Sources

Yves Marchasson, "Ernest Renan," in Supplément au Dictionnaire de la Bible, Vol. 10, Paris, 1985, pp.277344 provides succinct factual information on Renan's life, works, ideas and legacy. Laudyce Rétat, Religion et imagination religieuse. Leurs formes et leurs rapports dans l'œuvre d'Ernest Renan, Paris, 1977, is the most comprehensive monograph in French. David C. J. Lee, Ernest Renan. In the Shadow of Faith, London, 1996 explores the conflicts surrounding the process of secularization in the light of Renan's biographical experience. Renan's commmitment to ideologies spread in academic conetemporary milieux (racism, traditionalism) have been scrutinized recently in various works: after the provoking, if somewhat biased, Orientalism, by Edward Said (New York, 1978), see Edouard Richard, Ernest Renan, penseur traditionaliste? Aix-Marseille, 1996 and Samar Majaes Abdel Nour, Ernest Renan et l'Orient: ambiguïté d'une relation passionnée, Lille, 1999.

Richard J. Resch (1987)

Revised Bibliography

Renan, Ernest

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RENAN, ERNEST (1823–1892), French philologist and historian of religion.

The work of Ernest Renan can be fully understood only in light of the religious crisis that marked his life as well as those of many of his contemporaries. In his autobiography, Souvenirs d'enfance et de jeunesse (1883; Memories of Childhood and Youth), he relates how discoveries in the natural sciences and rational criticism of the Bible shook his belief in Christian dogma when he was a young seminary student at the Grand Séminaire de Saint-Sulpice in Paris. In 1845, convinced of the incompatibility of Catholic orthodoxy and the demands modern rationalism, Renan gave up on the priesthood in order to study classical languages and philosophy. A member of the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres from 1856 on, he was granted the Hebrew chair at the Collège de France in 1862. But he was suspended after his inaugural lecture, in which he implicitly denied the divinity of Jesus by describing him as "an incomparable human being." Several months later, the success of his bestseller Vie de Jésus (1863; The Life of Jesus) assured Renan's reputation. He became a major intellectual voice for the generation that came to political power and gained control of the reformed university system after 1870 under the Third Republic, a regime that heaped honors upon him. Reinstalled in his position at the Collège de France, he became its administrator in 1883. In 1878, he was elected a member of the Académie Française, and he was given a state funeral at his death in 1892.

In the early twenty-first century Renan is most often remembered for his definition of a nation in terms of a free political choice. This definition, given in Qu'est-ce qu'une nation? (1882; What Is a Nation?), was opposed to that of most German thinkers. But in his own time, during which political debate was obsessed with the question of secularism even while thousands of pilgrims flocked to Lourdes, Renan became famous primarily as a spokesperson for the rational approach to religion. His intellectual project crystallized around 1848. In L'Avenir de la science (The Future of Science;a manifesto written in 1848 but published in 1890), he outlined a history of the human spirit that was inspired by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel but borrowed its methodology from the positive sciences, scholarly historical criticism, and comparative philology. Considered an "embryogeny of the human spirit" (De l'origine du langage, 1848; On the Origin of Language), Renan's historical project focuses on the manifestations of spirit—language and religion—throughout time. Thus it is divided into two main parts, a study of Semitic languages and a history of Christianity.

Renan's works, like those of John Stuart Mill and É mile Littré, illustrate the diversity of nineteenth-century positivism. The Future of Science advocated a science that would bring humanity to a rational consciousness of itself. On this basis, Renan constructed a philosophy of history that differentiated the three stages of syncretism, analysis, and synthesis. The first stage is that of a poetic and religious intuitive apprehension of the world in its totality. The second stage is that of modern scientific rationality, which only produces a fragmentary consciousness of reality. This will then give way to the stage of synthesis, at which a fully mature science will rationally reconstitute the lost sense of totality. Even though the embryogeny of the spirit and the model of the three stages may call to mind Auguste Comte's sociology and law of the three states, Renan nevertheless made a distinction between his own ideas and Comte's. His stages were not precisely datable temporal eras, but moments of the spirit that, allowing for recurrences, could in fact coincide; meanwhile, Comtean sociology is primarily concerned with society in its current state, while Renan's "embryogeny" investigates the moment of origin, seeking to isolate the principle of the spirit's development.

Renan was an apostle of rationalism, but not the radical proponent of scientism that a hasty reading of The Future of Science might suggest. His life and work were marked by a tension between the demands of reason and a nostalgia for the comforting beliefs of his youth. Indeed, Renan appealed to rationality as a principle unique to scholarly studies. He took the natural sciences as his model, and the expression "embryogeny of the human spirit" harks back to the work of contemporary anatomists. But his intellectual ambition was to reconcile science and religion. The Future of Science looks forward to a time when science will reconstitute a sense of the totality of the universe, which will merge with the impression of the universe that syncretic metaphysical thought forms intuitively. The Life of Jesus attempts this reconciliation in a specific case: in that work, Renan provides a rational explanation for miracles without negating the historical reality of Christ. Like that of Comte, Renan's work thus exemplifies the complex relations between positivism and religion in the nineteenth century.

See alsoComte, Auguste; France; Mill, John Stuart; Nationalism; Positivism.


Primary Sources

Renan, Ernest. Oeuvres complètes d'Ernest Renan, édition définitive établie par Henriette Psichari. 10 vols. Paris, 1947–1961.

Secondary Sources

Burrow, John W. The Crisis of Reason: European Thought, 1848–1914. New Haven, Conn., and London, 2000.

Lee, David C. J. Ernest Renan. In the Shadow of Faith. London, 1996.

Petit, Annie. "Le prétendu positivisme d'Ernest Renan." Revue d'histoire des sciences humaines 8 (2003): 73–101.

Pholien, Georges. Les deux "Vie de Jésus" de Renan. Paris, 1983.

Retat, Laudyce. Religion et imagination religieuse: leurs formes et leurs rapports dans l'oeuvre d'Ernest Renan. Paris, 1977.

Richard, Nathalie. "La Vie de Jésus de Renan: un historien face à la question des miracles." In Religion et mentalités au Moyen Âge. Mélanges en l'honneur d'Hervé Martin, 87–99. Rennes, 2003.

——. "Analogies naturalistes: Taine et Renan." Espaces Temps, nos. 84–85–86, (2004): 76–90.

Nathalie Richard

Ernest Renan

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Ernest Renan

A French author, philologist, archeologist, and founder of comparative religion, Ernest Renan (1823-1892) influenced European thought in the second half of the 19th century through his numerous writings.

Ernest Renan grew up in the mystical, Catholic French province of Brittany, where Celtic myths combined with his mother's deeply experienced Catholicism led this sensitive child to believe he was destined for the priesthood. He was educated at the ecclesiastical college at Tréguier, graduating in 1838, and then went to Paris, where he carried on the usual theological studies at St-Nicolas-du-Chardonnet and at St-Sulpice. In his Recollections of Childhood and Youth (1883) he recounted the spiritual crisis he went through as his growing interest in scientific studies of the Bible eventually made orthodoxy unacceptable; he was soon won over to the new "religion of science," a conversion fostered by his friendship with the chemist P. E. M. Berthelot.

Renan abandoned the seminary and earned his doctorate in philosophy. At this time (1848) he wrote The Future of Science but did not publish it till 1890. In this work he affirmed a faith in the wonders to be brought forth by a science not yet realized, but which he was sure would come.

Archaeological expeditions to the Near East and further studies in Semitics led Renan to a concept of religious studies which would later be known as comparative religion. His was an anthropomorphic view, first publicized in his Life of Jesus (1863), in which he portrayed Christ as a historical phenomenon with historical roots and needing a rational, nonmystical explanation. With his characteristic suppleness of intellect, this deeply pious agnostic wrote a profoundly irreligious work which lost him his professorship in the dominantly Catholic atmosphere of the Second Empire in France.

The Life of Jesus was the opening volume of Renan's History of the Origins of Christianity (1863-1883), his most influential work. His fundamental thesis was that all religions are true and good, for all embody man's noblest aspirations: he invited each man to phrase these truths in his own way. For many, a reading of this work made religion for the first time living truth; for others, it made religious conviction impossible.

The defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871 was for Renan, as for many Frenchmen, a deeply disillusioning experience. If Germany, which he revered, could do this to France, which he loved, where did goodness, beauty, or truth lie? He became profoundly skeptical, but with painful honesty he refused to deny what seemed to lie before him, averring instead that "the truth is perhaps sad." He remained sympathetic to Christianity, perhaps expressing it most movingly in his Prayer on the Acropolis of Athens (1876), in which he reaffirmed his abiding faith in the Greek life of the mind but confessed that his was inevitably a larger world, with sorrows unknown to the goddess Athena; hence he could never be a true son of Greece, any more than any other modern.

Further Reading

Little has been written in English about Renan. Two of the best studies are by Richard M. Chadbourne: Ernest Renan as an Essayist (1957) and Ernest Renan (1968).

Additional Sources

Mercury, Francis, Renan, Paris: O. Orban, 1990. □