Renan, Joseph Ernest

views updated


Orientalist and philosopher; b. Trégiuer, Brittany, France, Feb. 28, 1823; d. Paris, Oct. 2, 1892. When Ernest (as he was ordinarily called) was only five years old, the corpse of his fisherman father was found on the seashore at Esqui. Thereafter the youth owed much to the devoted interest that his sister Henriette, 12 years his senior, took in him. Through her intervention, after his early education in the parochial school at Regier, he received a scholarship to study at the Sulpician minor seminary of St. Nicolas da Chardonnet, then recently founded by F. dupanloup. He continued his studies for the priesthood at the major seminaries of Issy and Saint Sulpice, Paris. In the latter place he studied Scripture, Hebrew, and Syriac under A. M. Le Hir. But in 1845 he gave up the idea of becoming a priest. After a short stay at the Oratorian college in Stanislas, he took the post of prefect of studies at the school of M. Crouzet. There he began his lifelong friendship with one of the students who was to become an illustrious chemist, P. E. M. Berthelot. Meanwhile, he continued his university studies and received the degree of fellowship in philosophy.

In 1848 he published his first work, the Histoire des langues sémitique, which won for him the Prix Volney and made him known as an Orientalist in the scientific world. It was at this time also that he wrote the Avenir de la Science, which, however, was not published until 1890. The period of October 1849 to June 1850 he spent on an archeological mission in Italy. In 1851 he was appointed to a post in the manuscript department of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, and in 1852 he received the doctorate in literature. In 1856 he married the niece of the artist Ary Scheffer. From 1860 to 1861 he was engaged in an archeological expedition in Phoenicia. There he began his famous Vie de Jésus (Life of Jesus), and there also his sister Henriette, who had urged him to write this work, died. Appointed a professor of Hebrew at the Collège de France in 1862, he made bold in his opening lecture to speak of Jesus as merely "an incomparable man." The scandal and protestations caused by this cost him this professorship until 1870, when, at the fall of the Empire, he was reinstated. After a second archeological expedition in the East from 1864 to 1865, he was chosen in 1879 to take the place of Claude Bernard in the Académie Française, and in 1879 he became the director of the Collège de France. His funeral, held at the expense of the state, was a purely civil affair.

Among his abundant literary production, his chief work is L'Histoire de origines du christianisme in seven volumes, embracing (1) Vie de Jésus (1863), (2) Les Apôtres (1868), (3) Saint Paul (1869), (4) L'Anté-christ (1873), (5) Les Évangiles et la seconde génération chrétienne (1877), (6) L'Église chrétienne, and (7) Marc-Aurèle et la fin du monde antique (1881). The style of Renan's language was largely responsible for the attraction that his works held for his contemporaries and later generations; his writings are always clear and smooth, rhythmic and interesting. While he made lasting contributions as a Semitic philologist, his value as a historian and exegete is much lessmostly that of a dilettante. Dazzled by the new science of the 19th century and the novel higher criticism of the Bible, Renan exchanged his Christian faith for skepticism, rationalism, and romanticism. Although he often changed his opinions on many points, he remained steadfast on onethe denial of the supernatural, the divinity of Christ, and the existence of a transcendent God.

Bibliography: Oeuvres complètes, ed. h. psichari, 9 v. (Paris 194760). j. chaix-ruy, E. Renan (Paris 1956), with full bibliog. of Renan's works. w. f. barry, Ernest Renan (New York 1905). l. f. mott, Ernest Renan (New York 1921). m. j. lagrange, Christ and Renan: A Commentary on Ernest Renan's "The Life of Jesus," tr. m. ward (New York 1928).

[a. m. malo]