Historian, philologist, Semitic scholar, and critic, Ernest Renan was considered one of France’s foremost thinkers during the later years of the Second Empire. Born in Brittany, he began studies for the priesthood and became an accomplished Hebraic scholar. Renan’s work on sacred texts, however, presented him with grave doubts concerning the divine inspiration of the Bible and revealed religion in general. In 1845 he gave up his ideas of becoming a priest and devoted himself to the new religion of science. His conviction that the future of the world rested in science is expressed in l’Avenir de la Science (English: The Future of Science), written around 1848 though not published until 1890.
Renan never lost his idealism nor abandoned the search for truth. However, his early optimism in the potential of scientific inquiry evolved into a skepticism based on historical relativism. What has sometimes disparagingly been called Renan’s “dilettantism” can be more positively viewed as an effort to reconcile complex and contradictory ideas. Such works as the Dialogues Philosophiques (1876), and especially the Drames Philosophiques (1878-86), illustrate his tendency to deny the absolute truth of any one point of view and to consider various contradictory and paradoxical aspects of a question.
Throughout his career Renan adhered to his belief in “the cult of the ideal, the negation of the supernatural, the experimental search for truth.” He maintained that the splendors of nature revealed by the scientist were superior to those of the poet. Renan had a mistrust of intuition or the poetic soul that purported to have a vision of truth discovered through inspiration. It is not surprising that as a critic of literature he favored the historical and philological over the textual approach.
Significant writings on religion
Renan’s historical and philological work on religions include Histoire Générale et Système Comparé des Langues Sémitiques (1855), Essai sur l’Origine du Langage (1858), and Études d’Histoire Religieuse (Studies in Religious History, 1857). After a trip to Palestine, he began publishing Histoire des Origines du Christianisme (1863-83). The first volume, Vie de Jèsus (1863), scandalized Protestants and Catholics alike as an insidious attack on religion that openly questioned the divinity of Christ. Renan’s history of Christianity is remarkable in that he submitted the Old and New Testaments to the same critical scrutiny that he did other pieces of historical evidence, concluding that the sacred texts were an entirely human product whose characteristics were relative to time and place. The work, in eight volumes, is available online:
Book One: The Life of Jesus (French text is here)
Book Two: The Apostles
Book Three: St. Paul
Book Four: The Antichrist
Book Five: The Gospels
Book Six: The Reigns of Hadrian and Antoninus Pius (A.D. 117-161)
Book Seven: Marcus Aurelius
Livre Huit: Index Général, avec une carte de l’extension du Christianisme vers l’an 180
Lectures on the Influence of the Institutions, Thought and Culture of Rome on Christianity and the Development of the Catholic Church (Hibbert Lectures 1880, 213 pp; PDF). Contents: In what sense is Christianity the work of Rome? – The legend of the Roman Church: Peter and Paul. – Rome, the center of growing ecclesiastical authority. – Rome, the capital of Catholicism. – Dr. Martineau’s address.
Nouvelles Études d’Histoire Religieuse (1884) Contents: La méthode expérimentale en religion. – Paganisme. – Mythologie comparée. – Premiers travaux sur le bouddhisme. – Nouveaux travaux sur le bouddhisme. – Les traductions de la Bible. – Les téaziés de la Perse. – Joachim de Flore et l’évangile éternel. – François d’Assise. – Une idylle monacale au XIIIe siècle. – L’art religieux. – Les congregations De auxiliis. – Un mot sur le procès de Galilée. – Port-Royal. – Spinoza.
History of the people of Israel, five vols. 1887-93. (Histoire du peuple d’Israël.)
Leaders of Christian and Anti-Christian Thought (Studies in Religious History, First Series 1895). Contents: Preface. – The religions of antiquity. – The history of the people of Israel. – The critical historians of Jesus. – Mahomet and the origins of Islamism. – The life of the saints. – The author of the ‘Imitation of Jesus Christ’. – John Calvin. – Channing and the Unitarian movement in the United States. – Feuerbach and the New Hegelian school. – ‘The temptation of Christ,’ by Ary Scheffer.
Études sur la politique religieuse du règne de Philippe le Bel (1899) Contents: Philippe IV, roi de France, 1268-1314; Nogaret, Guillaume de, 1260?-1313; Dubois, Pierre, époque 1300; Clement V, Pope, ca. 1260-1314; Clement V, pape, ca 1260-1314; Papauté.
G.P. Fischer, Essays on the Supernatural Origin of Christianity, with Special Reference to the Theories of Renan, Strauss, and the Tübingen School (1866)
Autobiography “Recollections of My Youth” (1883)
Ms. J. Darmesteter, The Life of Ernest Renan (1897)
G. C. Rawlinson, Recent French Tendencies from Renan to Claudel: A study in French Religion (1917)
J. Chaix-Ruy, Renan, Sa Vie et Son Oeuvre (Paris, 1956)
R. M. Chadbourne, Ernest Renan (New York, 1968)
H. Peyre, Sagesse de Renan (Paris, 1969)