Although Ernest Renan is probably best known for his L’Avenir de la science (1890;
The Future of Science), his history of Judeo-Christian origins (especially Vie de Jésus [1863; The Life of Jesus]), and his autobiography, Souvenirs d’enfance et de jeunesse (1883; Recollections of My Youth), the several hundred articles he wrote over a period of some 40 years—notably for the Revue des Deux Mondes (Review of two worlds) and the Journal des Débats, and collected in seven books and part of two others—form an important cross-section of his oeuvre and are among his finest works. It is in these essays, furthermore, that we best encounter Renan in the many sides of his personality: the scholar proficient as archaeologist, epigraphist, philologist, and historian; the tireless and joyful traveler; the political analyst and acute critic of contemporary affairs; the “penseur,” as the French call their thinkers who are not systematic or professional philosophers; and the marvelously gifted prose writer. The essays’ importance is enhanced by the fact that Renan was very conscious of their belonging to a “new literary genre” (preface, Études d’histoire religieuse), a type of writing that he considered, in fact, characteristic of his century and of its best literary efforts.
Renan’s essay production may be roughly divided into three periods: the inartistic, combative journalism of the 1840s; the mature, artistically sensitive criticism of the 1850s, 1860s, and early 1870s; and the somewhat frivolous pieces of his late years, from about 1876 to his death in 1892. In this last phase one still finds, exceptionally, a few of his greatest essays.
From 1848 to 1850, in the pro-revolutionary, republican, socialist Liberté de Penser:
Revue Philosophique et Liéteraire, the brilliant young scholar of Semitic languages took his first bold journalistic strides into two fields that were to interest him permanently: the history of religion and contemporary political and religious questions. In a partisan polemical spirit, the former Catholic seminarian, who had abandoned orthodox faith under the pressure of rationalism and biblical criticism, attacks clericalism and defends liberalism in a crude, dogmatic style (not without real vigor) as different from his mature style as night from day. That he had Pascal’s brilliant polemic against the Jesuits, the Lettres provinciales (1657; The Provincial Letters, signed “Louis de Montalte”), in mind as a model is shown by his use of the pseudonym “Ernest de Montalte” for one of the most caustic satiric essays of the series.
The stylistic revisions that Renan made in these articles when he published them in later essay collections reveal in striking fashion the evolution of his style and its growth into the subtly refined, artistic, often poetic prose of his mature manner. This profound change, coinciding with his elevation of the article de revue into a “new literary genre,” was due in part to the influence of his mentor, the great historian of medieval France, Augustin Thierry, and to that of such purists and advocates of classical French prose style as his sister, Henriette, and the editor of the Journal des Débats, Ustazade de Sacy (both this journal and the Revue des Deux Mondes had much higher literary standards than the Liberté de Penser); but above all it was due to the aesthetic awakening he experienced as the result of his academic mission to Italy in 1849–50. He had also discovered, thanks largely to Thierry, that refinement of form was inseparable from force of argument, even in historical and philosophical writing.
The first fruit of his literary conversion, at age 34, was the Études d’histoire religieuse (1857; Studies of Religious History), a landmark in the history of the French essay, which introduces a number of features that will remain characteristic of Renan’s essay art. In his hands the essay, already given a new dignity by the choice of the word “study” in the title, becomes a supreme instrument of “vulgarisation,” even “haute vulgarisation,” as the French call it (as distinct from mere “popularisation”), or the art of rendering erudition accessible to the common reader. (Sainte-Beuve had paved the way with his humanization of literary scholarship.) Renan’s subjects include religions of antiquity, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Calvin, Unitarianism, neo-Hegelianism, and religious art.
Criticism, with its synthesis of the “sentiment religieux” (“religious sense,” as distinct from dogmas and creeds) and scholarly historical analysis, has become nothing less than “an original form of creation peculiar to our age” (preface). Although the Études may be read independently of one another, the author, very conscious of the need to provide a truly unified and organic whole (preface), arranges them with an eye to the thematic structure of the book as a whole.
These formal features are continued and perfected in Renan’s second collection, the Essais de morale et de critique (1859; Moral and critical essays), which surpass the Études and may well be his greatest essay work. It consists of an important preface followed by 13 essays, divided roughly into two parts: the first, a series of critical portraits aiming to define the originality of his own generation (the generation of 1848) by comparing it with the preceding one (the Romantic), represented by a philosopher (Victor Cousin), a religious writer (Félicité Robert de Lamennais), and a historian (Thierry); and the second, using history as a springboard, a moral and political critique of the Second Empire. The main theme, giving coherence to the different essays, is “the establishing of freedom by way of the regeneration of the individual conscience” (preface). Resistance, in the name of an intellectual and moral elite, is urged against middle-class mediocrity and vulgarity and against the tyranny of the centralized, bureaucratic state. Various examples of forces counteracting materialism culminate in the final essay, the famous “Poésie des races celtiques” (Poetry of Celtic races). Renan, as a Breton, makes of his Celtic inheritance from a “golden age” of idealism and spirituality the supreme symbol of resistance to what he calls “an age of lead and tin.”
The essayist’s method here is to employ an intricate pattern, almost rhythmical in nature, of abstract thought, concrete detail, anecdote, poetic image, and reflection, subtly suggesting his message more often than he directly states it. It is the method of “grasping one’s object by way of successive approximations” (this last term was taken up by Renan’s admirer, Charles Du Bos, to become the title of his own essay masterpiece, Approximations [1922–37]). The style, with its subtle harmonies and its “slow and calm manner of breathing” (Jules Renard), for the most part appeals less to the eye than to the ear—and to the moral sense.
By contrast, Renan’s two subsequent essay volumes, the Questions contemporaines (1868; Contemporary questions) and La Réforme intellectuelle et morale (1871;
Intellectual and moral reform), deal in a much more direct and vigorous style with political problems in the broadest sense, including education, and with proposed solutions. The first is a sober critique of the Second Empire in its final phase, while the second is a zealous, provocative, at times apocalyptic vision of the ills of a France seeking to recover from its defeat in the FrancoPrussian War. “Reactionary” as La Réforme is, in its pushing of the elitist thesis of the Essais to authoritarian if not protofascist extremes, it makes more exciting reading than the Questions and contains some of Renan’s most prophetic writing. In both books he has mastered the art of conferring on essays written for specific political occasions (“écrits de circonstance”) a more universal, permanent interest and value; at his best he ranks with such great political essayists as Walter Bagehot and Lord Acton.
Renan’s philosophical essays, though only four in number, form a significant part of his total philosophical work. Three, composed in the 1860s, appeared as “fragments” in Dialogues et fragments philosophiques (1876; Philosophical Dialogues and Fragments), and the fourth, “Examen de conscience philosophique” (Examination of philosophical conscience), one of his greatest essays, is the concluding piece in his final book, Feuilles détachées (Detached leaves), published in the year of his death in 1892. To come to these from his political essays is to leave “importunate truths” expressed in forceful prose for a tenuous verbal music expressive of their author’s belief that philosophy, apart from its usefulness as a handmaid of history and science, and especially in that branch of it known as metaphysics, is essentially a form of poetry. Renan’s famous “play of ideas” occurs to some extent in these essays, but for a freer, more unpredictable, more “essayistic” form of such play one must turn to what he called the “conversations between the different lobes of [his] brain” in the dialogues, where he reveals himself to be a worthy successor of Plato and Malebranche. As a philosophical essayist he is perhaps less great than Emerson (with whom he had a remarkable affinity, as noted by Bland Blanshard, 1984), George Santayana, or Bertrand Russell.
In his final period Renan produced four essay collections, if we include the “oral essays” of the Discours et conférences (1887; Speeches and lectures), containing one of his most famous and most lastingly relevant pieces, “Qu’est-ce qu’une nation?” (What is a nation?). On the whole these collections of “songeries crépusculaires” (twilight musings), as Maurice Barrés called them in Huit Jours chez M.Renan (1913), contain a greater number of charming trifles and miscellaneous bits of erudition and fewer of the polished, deliberate essays of the kind to which the earlier Renan has accustomed us. He seems to have felt that the heyday of such “grands articles” had passed. The style has become somewhat facile and flaccid. Nor is the “renanisme” that marks many of these pieces—the attitude of a Gallic Buddha smiling ironically at the spectacle of a world that should not be taken too seriously—to everyone’s taste. The Nouvelles études d’histoire
religieuse (1884; New studies in religious history, translated as Studies in Religious History) is a superficial successor to the great Études of 1857. The Mélanges d’histoire et de voyages (1878; Miscellany of historical and travel essays), on the other hand, is a neglected book containing several fine specimens of historiography in the best Renanian tradition as well as a great travel essay, “Vingt Jours en Sicile” (20 days in Sicily). This essay, based on his trip to a learned congress in Palermo in 1875, ls a beautiful, sensuous recapturing of youthful spirit on the part of the aging and ailing scholar; it corresponds in his work to the place held by Montaigne’s “Sur des vers de Virgile” (1588; “On Some Verses of Virgil”) in his Essais. Exceptionally fine essays are also still found in the Feuilles détachées, with its lovely play on words of the title—autumnal pages detached from the tree of his work; leaves falling from the tree of his life; his death anticipated with serene detachment. In reality the book offers the last variation on the Renanian theme of the “poetry of the self,” and is offered as a sequel to his Recollections of My Youth. It rises to a fitting culmination in his final essay, a philosophical last testament and summing up of his deepest beliefs, the “Examen de conscience philosophique.” An important counterweight to the skepticism and frivolity of renanisme itself, it is also nothing less than Renan’s “De l’experience” (Montaigne, 1588; “On Experience”).
Renan as an essayist learned much from Sainte-Beuve’s Portraits and Lundis, although he had serious reservations about their author as a thinker. It was Sainte-Beuve, on the other hand, who with no less modesty than critical acumen singled out his younger contemporary as “the master of a new genre,” that is, the “article de revue.” In his essays in religious history Renan succeeded in annexing that field into the realm of literature (Brunetière, Cinq lettres sur Renan, 1904). The breadth of his essays, equaled in France only by those of SainteBeuve and Montaigne (who surpasses them both), is derived not only from his extraordinarily broad learning and culture, but also and even more from his lifelong insistence on representing multiple and contradictory points of view, on “not letting a single component of humanity stifle any other” (Fragments intimes et romanesques [1914; Intimate and fictional fragments]). His essays faithfully reflect the “fabric woven of contradictions” that he exulted in being. He also enriched his essay work by combining subjective and objective points of view. Like Sainte-Beuve, he avoided deeply personal disclosures à la Montaigne, reserving these, again like SainteBeuve, for his intimate notebooks. He reproached his contemporaries “for being too subjective, too wrapped up in themselves,” a criticism that would seem to augur poorly for a would-be essayist. Yet, paradoxically, like Sainte-Beuve, he succeeded in speaking meaningfully of himself while at the same time being “absorbed in the object, that is, in all that lies before us, the world, nature, history” (preface, Feuilles détachées).
Among essayists who learned from his example are, in France, Anatole France, Émile Faguet, Jules Lemaître, Paul Bourget, Charles Du Bos; abroad, Matthew Arnold, Walter Pater, George Santayana.
Ernest Joseph Renan. Born 28 February 1823 in Tréguier, Brittany. Studied at the École Ecclésiastique, Tréguier, 1831–38; seminary of Saint-Nicolas du Chardonnet (run by Abbé Dupanloup), Paris, 1838–41, and seminaries at Issy, 1841–43, and Saint-Sulpice, 1843–45; tutor, 1845–48; studied privately for licence in letters, 1846, agrégation in philosophy, 1848, and doctorate in letters, 1852. Contributor to Liberté de Penser and Journal de I’lnstruction Publique, late 18405, Journal des Débats, early 1850s, and Revue des Deux Mondes, from 1853. Sent by government to classify manuscripts of major Italian libraries, 1849–50; lived with his sister Henriette in Paris, from 1851; worked for the manuscript section, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, 1851–60. Elected to the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, 1856. Married Cornélie Scheffer, 1856: one daughter (died in infancy) and one son. Led archaeological expedition to Phoenicia (Syria), 1860, and Palestine, 1861, where Henriette died of malaria. Professor of Hebrew, Collège de France, Paris, 1861–64 and from 1870 (administrator, from 1883). Traveled to Egypt and the Upper Nile, 1864. Assistant director of manuscripts department for the Imperial Library, 1864. Founded collection of Semitic inscriptions, Corpus Inscriptionum Semiticarum, and named secretary of the Société Asiatique, 1867. Ran unsuccessfully as liberal candidate for deputyship in district of Meaux, 1869. Elected to the French Academy, 1878.
Award: Volney Prize, 1847; Officer, 1880, Commander, 1884, and Grand Officer, 1888, Legion of Honor. Died (of pneumonia and heart trouble) in Paris, 2 October 1892.
Essays and Related Prose
Études d’histoire religieuse, 1857; as Studies of Religious History, transiated by O.B.Frothingham, 1864
Essais de morale et de critique, 1859
Questions contemporaines, 1868
La Réforme intellectuelle et morale, 1871
Dialogues et fragments philosophiques, 1876; as Dialogues philosophiques., edited by Laudyce Rétat, 1991; as Philosophical Dialogues and Fragments, translated by Râs
Bihâri Mukharjî, 1883
Mélanges d’histoire et de voyages, 1878
Nouvelles études d’histoire religieuse, 1884; as Studies in Religious History, translated by William M.Thomson, 1886
Discours et conférences, 1887
Feuilles détachees, 1892
La Réforme intellectuelle et morale et autres écrits (selection), edited by Alain de Benoist, 1981
Renan histoire et parole, æuvres diverses (selection), edited by Laudyce Rétat, 1984
Other writings: a book on the future of science (1890), a sevenvolume history of the origins of Christianity (Les Origines du christianisme, 1863–82), a history of the people of Israel (1887–93), other works on religion, the autobiography Souvenirs d’enfance et de jeunesse (1883; Recollections of My Youth), Drames philosophiques (1888), and a book about his sister Henriette (1862). Also translated several books of the Bible from Hebrew.
Collected works edition: OEuvres complètes, edited by Henriette Psichari, 10 vols., 1947–61.
Girard, Henri, and Henri Moncel, Bibliographie des æuvres de Ernest Renan, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1923
Arnold, Matthew, “M.Renan,” in his Essays in Criticism, Third Series, Folcroft, Pennsylvannia: Folcroft, 1969 (original edition, 1910)
Babbitt, Irving, “Renan,” in his The Masters of Modern French Criticism, Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1912
Blanshard, Bland, “Ernest Renan,” in his Four Reasonable Men: Marcus Aurelius, John Stuart Mill, Ernest Renan, Henry Sidgwick, Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1984
Chadbourne, Richard, “Renan or the Contemptuous Approach to Literature,” Yale French Studies 2 (1949):96–104
Chadbourne, Richard, “Renan as Prophet of the European and World Future,” American Society of Legion of Honor Magazine 11 (1951):199–309
Chadbourne, Richard, “Renan’s Revision of His Liberté de Penser Articles,” PMLA 66 (1951):917–50
Chadbourne, Richard, “Renan and Sainte-Beuve,” Romanic Review 44 (1953):127–35
Chadbourne, Richard, Ernest Renan as an Essayist, Ithaca, New York: Corneli University Press, 1957
Chadbourne, Richard, Ernest Renan, New York: Twayne, 1968
Darmsteter, James, “Ernest Renan,” New World 2 (1893): 401–33
“Ernest Renan,” in Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism, vol. 26, edited by Janet Mullane and Robert Wilson, Detroit: Gale Research, 1990:361–428
Guéhenno, Jean, Aventures de I’esprit, Paris: Gallimard, 1954
Guérard, Albert, “Renan,” in his French Prophets of Yesterday, London: Unwin, and New York: Appleton, 1913
James, Henry, “Renan’s Dialogues and Philosophic Fragments” in his Literary Reviews and Essays on American, English, and French Literature, edited by Albert Mordell, New York: Twayne, 1957 (original article published 1876)
Monod, Gabriel, Les Maîtres de I’histoire: Renan, Taine, Michelet, Paris: Calmann-Levy, 1894
Mott, Lewis, Ernest Renan, New York and London: Appleton, 1921
Neff, Emery, “History as Art: Renan, Burckhardt, Green,” in his The Poetry of History, New York: Columbia University Press, 1947
Peyre, Henri, “Ernest Renan, critique littéraire,” PMLA 44 (1929): 288–308
Pommier, Jean, Renan, d’après des documents inédits, Paris: Perrin, 1923
Psichari, Henriette, Renan d’après lui-même, Paris: Plon, 1937
Sainte-Beuve, Charles-Augustin, “M.Ernest Renan,” in his Nouveaux Lundis, vol. 2, Paris: Lévy, 3rd edition, 1870
Sainte-Beuve, Charles-Augustin, “Vie de Jésus par M.Ernest Renan,” in his Nouveaux Lundis, vol. 6, Paris: Lévy, 1872
Saintsbury, George, “Ernest Renan,” Fortnightly Review 27 (1880): 625–43
Smith, Colin, “The Fictionalist Element in Renan’s Thought,” French Studies 9 (1955):30–41
Smith, Colin, “Renan’s Final Cosmology,” Forum for Modern Language Studies 14 (1978):231–46
Wardman, H.W., Ernest Renan: A Critical Biography, London: Athlone Press, 1964
Wardman, H.W., “L’Esprit de finesse and Style in Renan,” Modern Language Review 59 (1964):215–24
Wilson, Edmund, “Decline of the Revolutionary Tradition: Renan,” in his To the Finland Station: A Study in the Writing and Acting of History, New York: Harcourt Brace, and London: Secker and Warburg, 1940
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