He was born at Tréguier in Brittany of a family of fishermen. His grandfather, having made a small fortune with his fishing-smack, bought a house at Tréguier and settled there, and his father, captain of a small cutter and an ardent Republican, married the daughter of Royalist tradesmen from the neighbouring town of Lannion. All his life Renan was divided between his father's and his mother's political beliefs. He was only five when his father died, and his sister Henriette, twelve years his senior, became the moral head of the household. Having in vain attempted to keep a school for girls at Tréguier, she left there and went to Paris as teacher in a young ladies' boarding-school. Ernest meanwhile was educated in the ecclesiastical seminary of his native place. His school reports describe him as "docile, patient, diligent, painstaking, thorough". The priests cared little for qualities such as brilliance. While the priests were grounding him in mathematics and Latin, his mother completed his education. She was half Breton. Her paternal ancestors came from Bordeaux, and Renan used to say that in his own nature the Gascon and the Breton were constantly at odds.
In the summer of 1838, Renan won all the prizes at the college of Tréguier. His sister told the doctor of the school in Paris where she taught, and he gave news to FAP Dupanloup, who was involved in organizing the ecclesiastical college of St Nicholas du Chardonnet, a school in which the young Catholic nobility and the most gifted pupils of the Catholic seminaries were to be educated together, with a view to cementing the bond between the aristocracy and the priesthood. Dupanloup sent for Renan, who was only fifteen and had never been outside Brittany. "I learned with stupor that knowledge was not a privilege of the church ... I awoke to the meaning of the words talent, fame, celebrity." Religion seemed to him wholly different in Tréguier and in Paris. The superficial, brilliant, pseudo-scientific Catholicism of the capital did not satisfy Renan, who had accepted the austere faith of his Breton masters.
In 1840 Renan left St Nicholas to study philosophy at the seminary of Issy. He entered with a passion for Catholic scholasticism. The rhetoric of St Nicholas had wearied him, and his serious intelligence hoped to satisfy itself with the vast and solid material of Catholic theology. Thomas Reid and Nicolas Malebranche first attracted him among the philosophers, and after these he turned to Georg Hegel, Immanuel Kant and Herder. Renan began to see an essential contradiction between the metaphysics which he studied and the faith he professed, but an appetite for truths that can be verified restrained his scepticism. "Philosophy excites and only half satisfies the appetite for truth; I am eager for mathematics," he wrote to his sister Henriette. Henriette had accepted in the family of Count Zamoyski an engagement more lucrative than her former place. She exercised the strongest influence over her brother, and her published letters reveal a mind almost equal, a moral nature superior, to his own.
It was not mathematics but philology which was to settle Renan's gathering doubts. His course completed at Issy, he entered the college of St Sulpice in order to take his degree in philology prior to entering the church; and here he began the study of Hebrew. He saw that the second part of Isaiah differs from the first not only in style but in date; that the grammar and the history of the Pentateuch are posterior to the time of Moses; that the book of Daniel is clearly apocryphal. Secretly, Renan felt himself cut off from the communion of saints, and yet desired to live the life of a Catholic priest. The struggle between vocation and conviction was won by conviction. In October 1845 Renan left St Sulpice for Stavistas, a lay college of the Oratorians. Still feeling too much under the domination of the church, he reluctantly broke the last tie which bound him to the religious life and entered M. Crouzet's school for boys as an usher.
Renan, brought up by priests in a world ruled by authority and curious only of feeling and opinion, was to accept the scientific ideal with an extraordinary expansion of all his faculties. He became ravished by the splendour of the cosmos. At the end of his life he wrote of Arniel, "The man who has time to keep a private diary has never understood the immensity of the universe." The certitudes of physical and natural science were revealed to Renan in 1846 by the chemist Marcellin Berthelot, then a boy of eighteen, his pupil at M. Crouzet's school. To the day of Renan's death their friendship continued. Renan was occupied as usher only in the evenings. In the daytime he continued his researches in Semitic philology. In 1847 he obtained the Prix Volney--one of the principal distinctions awarded by the Academy of Inscriptions--for the manuscript of his "General History of Semitic Languages." In 1847 he took his degree as Agrégé de Philosophie; that is to say, fellow of the university, and was offered a place as master in the lycée of Vendôme.
Renan was not only a scholar. In St Paul, as in the Apostles, he shows his concern with the larger social life, his sense of fraternity, and a revival of the democratic sentiment which had inspired L'Avenir de la science. In 1869 he presented himself as the candidate of the liberal opposition at the parliamentary election for Meaux. While his temper had become less aristocratic, his Liberalism had grown more tolerant. On the eve of its dissolution Renan was half prepared to accept the Empire, and, had he been elected to the Chamber of Deputies, he would have joined the group of l'Empire liberal. But he was not elected. A year later war was declared with Germany, the Empire fell, and Napoleon III went into exile. The Franco-German War was a turning-point in Renan's history. Germany had always been to him the asylum of thought and disinterested science. Now he saw the land of his ideal destroy and ruin the land of his birth; he beheld the German no longer as a priest, but as an invader.
In La Réforme intellectuelle et morale (1871) Renan at least tried to safeguard France's future. Yet he was still under the influence of Germany. The ideal and the discipline which he proposed to his defeated country were those of her conqueror--a feudal society, a monarchical government, an élite, which the rest of the nation exists merely to support and nourish; an ideal of honour and duty imposed by a chosen few on the recalcitrant and subject multitude. The errors of the Commune confirmed Renan in this reaction. At the same time the irony always perceptible in his work grows more bitter. His Dialogues philosophiques, written in 1871, his Ecclesiastcs (1882) and his Antichrist (1876) (the fourth volume of the Origins of Christianity, dealing with the reign of Nero) are incomparable in their literary genius, but they are examples of a disenchanted and sceptical temper. He had vainly tried to make his country follow his precepts. He resigned himself to watch her drift towards perdition. The progress of events showed him, on the contrary, a France which every day left a little stronger, and he aroused himself from his disbelieving, disillusioned mood, and observed with genuine interest the struggle for justice and liberty of a democratic society. For his mind was the broadest of the age. The fifth and sixth volumes of the Origins of Christianity (the Christian Church and Marcus Aurelius) show him reconciled with democracy, confident in the gradual ascent of man, aware that the greatest catastrophes do not really interrupt the sure if imperceptible progress of the world-reconciled also in some measure, if not with the truths, at least with the moral beauties of Catholicism, and with the remembrance of his pious youth.
In old age the philosopher cast a glance at his childhood. He was nearly sixty when, in 1883, he published the Souvenirs d'enfance et de jeunesse, the work by which he is chiefly known. They possess that lyric note of personal utterance which the public prizes in a man already famous. They showed the blasé modern reader that a world no less poetic, no less primitive than that of the Origins of Christianity exists, or still existed within living memory, on the north-western coast of France. They have the Celtic magic of ancient romance and the simplicity, the naturalness, the veracity which the 19th century prized so highly. But his Ecclesiastes, published a few months earlier, his Drames philosophiques, collected in 1888, give a more adequate image of his fastidious critical, disenchanted, yet not unhopeful spirit. These books are often bitter and melancholy, yet not destitute of optimism. They show the attitude towards uncultured Socialism of a philosopher liberal by conviction, by temperament an aristocrat. We learn in them how Caliban (democracy), the mindless brute, educated to his own responsibility, makes after all an adequate ruler; how Prospero (the aristocratic principle, or, if we will, the mind) accepts his dethronement for the sake of greater liberty in the intellectual world, since Caliban proves an effective policeman, and leaves his superiors a free hand in the laboratory; how Arid (the religious principle) acquires a firmer hold on life, and no longer gives up the ghost at the faintest hint of change; Indeed, Arid flourishes in the service of Prospero under the external government of the many-headed brute. For the one thing needful is not destined to succumb. Religion and knowledge are as imperishable as the world they dignify. Thus out of the depths rises unvanquished the essential idealism of Ernest Renan.
Renan was a great worker. At sixty years of age, having finished the Origins of Christianity, he began his History of Israel, based on a lifelong study of the Old Testament and on the Corpus Inscriptionum Semiticarum, published by the Académie des Inscriptions under Renan's direction from the year 1881 till the end of his life. The first volume of the History of Israel appeared in 1887, the third and finest volume in 1891, the last two only after the historian's decease. As a history of facts and' theories the book has many faults; as an essay on the evolution of the religious idea it is (despite some passages of frivolity, irony, or incoherence) of extraordinary importance; as a reflection of the mind of Ernest Renan it is the most lifelike of images. In a volume of collected essays, Feuilles détachées, published also in 1891, we find the same mental attitude, an affirmation of the necessity of piety independent of dogma. He died after a few days' illness. In his last years he had received many honours, being made an administrator of the College de France and grand officer of the Legion of Honour. Two volumes of the History of Israel, his correspondence with his sister Henriette, his Letters to M. Berthelot, and the History of the Religious Policy of Philippe-le-Bel, which he wrote in the years immediately before his marriage, all appeared during the last eight years of the 19th century.
This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.