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Ernest Renan.


Renan.Merimée.EVERY ONE WHO has read Mérimée’s Lettres à Une Inconnue must remember some not wholly complimentary passages respecting M. Renan. There is no need to quote the passages here; an allusion to them is enough in order to help us to formulate, by a process of contrast, the character of M. Renan as a critic and writer. Mérimée was himself, in a literary sense if not personally, the most exquisitely accomplished cynic that has ever existed. The way in which, throughout his not very bulky work, whole schools and regions of thought and art are represented by some little masterpiece, and then apparently dismissed as of no further interest to the author, is unique in literature. The way in which there appears in the beauty of all these representations something sinister, and as it were inhuman, is equally unique. Both in pure fantasy-pieces like the Vénus d’Ille, and in pictures of modern society like La Double Méprise, and in such astonishing reproductions of the harsher sides of the past as La Jacquerie, the same literary perfection and the same cynical force are apparent. To every one who has, in however faint a measure, the tendency to look at life from the sarcastic side, Mérimée must always be the object of an immense admiration.

In his attitude towards books and men Renan stands apart from any other school or individual of his own country and of the Continent…

But to such a writer himself nothing could be more unwelcome than anything even approaching what is irreverently called in English “gush,”—than the tendency not merely to think nobly and hopefully of life, and to dwell upon its more amiable aspects, but to dress it up in bright colours and agreeable forms, and to express these in somewhat effusive and voluble language, full of unction and of appeals to the heart, the sentiments, and the religious principle. I by no means give this as a description of M. Renan, but it is probably a sufficiently true description of Mérimée’s M. Renan; and it was upon this subjective being, no doubt, that the author of Colomba vented his spleen. It ought to be remembered that the attacked person took his revenge in a most gentlemanlike correction. In the next volume of the Origines he alluded to Petronius as “Un Mérimée sceptique au ton froid et exquis, qui nous a laissé un roman d’une verve, d’une finesse accomplie en même temps que d’une corruption raffinée.» The comparison is by no means ungenerous, and withal singularly true. Now it is hardly a paradox to say that in order to detect the character of any man or writer one cannot do better than take the reports of his enemies. By stripping these of malignity and exaggeration, by substituting the quality for the defect and the mean for the excess, such unfavourable accounts, unless they come from wholly untrustworthy or incompetent sources, may be made to yield a much larger amount of truth than the amiable but often vague and random language of panegyrists and partisans. Least of all was such a faculty as Mérimée’s likely to go altogether astray, though it might very easily overpass the goal. The truth is that the literary and philosophical characteristics of M. Renan (for with matters theological we have nothing to do here) are very strongly marked, and for our time by no means common. In his attitude towards books and men he stands apart from any other school or individual of his own country and of the Continent, though perhaps it would not be difficult to name an English critic who, with many points of difference, had some points of agreement with him. To those who simply consider him in the light of an assailant or defender of certain theological or ecclesiastical ideas, these peculiarities are necessarily invisible. Let us see if by keeping theology apart they can be made to emerge into view.

IT IS ALWAYS interesting and instructive to compare the earliest and the latest work of men of literary distinction. The earliest work of M. Renan’s known to me—putting aside mere college exercises—is the article on “L’État des Esprits en 1849”; the latest,2 omitting L’Église Chrétienne as a simple continuation of a work planned and moulded twenty years ago, is Caliban. Between the enthusiasm of five-and-twenty and the quiet skepticism of fifty-five there is, of course, a good deal of difference; but the main features of the author’s mind, and even to some extent of his literary style, are identical enough. There is the same disbelief in religious and political nostrums, the same preference for a somewhat vague elevation and expansion of heart, the same contempt of utilitarianism on the one side, and of the merely aesthetic attitude towards art and literature on the other. Between the youthful appeal in favour of “la pauvre humanité assise, morne et silencieuse, sur le bord du chemin,” and the ingenious parody of Shakespeare which scandalised grave and precise democrats long afterwards, their author has something more than a fair amount of work done to show. I need take no account of works of pure erudition, though the treatise De l’Origine du Langage is not unimportant from the general point of view, because it shows, in a comparatively neutral field, the same reluctance to adopt materialist explanations and to admit the all-powerful action of circumstances as distinguished from innate powers, which characterises M. Renan elsewhere. The catalogue of his more properly literary work may be limited to the monograph on Averroes, to the four or five volumes of Essays collected and reprinted under different titles, and to the six volumes of the Origins of Christianity. The book on Averroes, except for its connection with the author’s Semitic studies, and perhaps also with the general history of free thought and revolt against Renan in Petite Lune.religious dogma, does not seem to be particularly germane to his tastes. It is, however, an excellent book in its way, and the labour of its preparation must, beyond a doubt, have had an excellent disciplinary effect on M. Renan’s style and manner. Inclined, as he most undoubtedly is, to be exuberant rather than the reverse, if he had given himself very early to easy literature, which requires much writing, little reading, and no research properly so called, the effect could hardly have failed to be unfavourable. Combining, as the book does, a bibliographic study of considerable complexity, an analysis of an extensive work, and a rapid survey of a long period of subsequent history, the amount of labour which it represents is very far out of proportion to its bulk. There are passages here and there, moreover, which distinctly enough foreshadow the manner and method of the author of the Vie de Jésus, such as the section on the curious myth of the Tres Impostores, and that describing Petrarch’s tribulations with the Venetian Averroists. The scattered essays are naturally much more fertile of light on the character of their author than a work where the plan and almost the contents were traced out for him by his subject. His various studies in religious history may be taken partly as sketches for the finished work which was to come, but still more as protreptic discourses put forward to dispose the public to receive that work with understand and favour, or else critical appreciations of different forms of the religious spirit. The least happy of these is probably that on Channing, in which the author, true to a bad habit of his countrymen, seems to start with a preconceived archetypal Englishman or American (for it is much the same to him) and to reason downwards. More interesting still are the papers united under the heading Questions Contemporaines, which for the most part exhibit in various forms that ardent desire for an improvement in the higher education of his country, which is one of M. Renan’s most honourable characteristics, and which, before his old age, he had already lived to see in several ways fulfilled. Nor can the political sketches entitled Réforme Intellectuelle et Morale be omitted if a full estimate is to be formed of their author. The famous correspondence with the author of the Leben Jesu, while perhaps it exposes only too clearly the sorrowful chances that await the too faithful believer in sweet reasonableness now as in other days, is at least as valuable as a moral tell-tale as it is honourable to the writer. Two long studies, one having the general title of the book, the other headed De la Monarchie Constitutionnelle en France, exhibit not only such practical political ideas as the author has formed, but also a very favourite notion of his, that great moral and intellectual achievements unfit a nation for playing a prominent political part, and that in this order of thought, as in another, it must lose its life to save it. Finally, M. Renan’s more purely personal and literary studies show less an ability on his part to put himself in the place of the subjects criticized, than an ability to improve them in the ecclesiastical sense, that is to say, to use their history and peculiarities for the purpose of illustrating his own ethical, religious, and political ideas. Interesting, however, as are these lesser pieces to the student, and to all who care for idiosyncrasy of work as opposed to mere volume and importance of subject, they can hardly be regarded even now, and will almost certainly not be regarded hereafter, as anything more than a vestibule and precinct to the book which has occupied the prime of the author’s life, and upon which, beyond all doubt, he would himself prefer to base his chances of fame.

It may be questioned whether any writer ever manifested a more distinct and uniform personality of thought and style than that which M. Renan maintained through the six volumes of…the Vie de Jésus.

It may be questioned whether any writer ever manifested a more distinct and uniform personality of thought and style than that which M. Renan maintained through the six volumes of his greatest work, the publication of which extended over twenty years. The first impression that the Vie de Jésus and its successors produce on critical readers, whether they be orthodox or unorthodox, is in all probability identical, nor can it be said that this impression is ever wholly removed. Nothing can, to all appearance, be more hopelessly uncritical and arbitrary than the proceeding. To take a connected narrative and reject such details as happen not to square with preconceived ideas, while admitting the others; to reject a prophecy as obviously false, and take it up next minute as a trustworthy history of the events a posteriori; to see in a reported miracle, not an imposture, but an innocent distortion of some ordinary fact—all this seems at first sight to partake decidedly more of the spirit of Dichtung than of Wahrheit. The historian has also, in common with many other historians of the latter half of the nineteenth century, a most remarkable habit of building up whole characters and histories out of slight personal traits. St. James the Less, if he had foreseen that the callosities on his knees and the gold plate on his forehead would bring him into such trouble, would infallibly have discarded the latter and adopted a cushion to obviate the former. The unfortunate Claudius Lysias may fairly complain of the accusation of “stupidity,” founded upon one or two casual allusions which certainly do not bear that sense to all readers; while, on the other hand, Barnabas has to thank M. Renan for favours received in return for a very slight historical consideration. But before long the rough places becomes tolerably smooth to an intelligent walker.

The object of the book, as a defence of principles and modes of character which seem to the writer of the first importance to the world, soon makes itself apparent. M. Renan’s two wings, as the mediaeval allegorists would say, are the abstractions which are called, in the technical terms of theology and morals, spirituality and unction. In his use of both of these there are points which are decidedly less akin to the English temperament, and to such half-English temperaments as Mérimée’s, than to the softer and more feminine temper which is so largely represented in the average Frenchman. The words of the hymn, “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild,” express the attraction which the critic has found on the moral side in the founder of the Christian religion; the words “the kingdom of God” represent his attraction on the purely intellectual side. He has inherited from that religion, or has made up for himself (whichever phrase may be preferred), an ideal of unworldliness as distinguished from the self-seeking and materialism of modern life, of mild and impartial affection as opposed to the stormy passions or cold indifference of the individual.

WITH THIS A PRIORI conception he has started, and it is this that shapes his handling of his work. In the earliest volume the sentimental side of the matter has most play, and it is still most remarkable therein. Without being very cynical, it is permissible to feel the abundance of such adjectives as “délicieux,” “charmant,” “ravissant,” “enivrant,” “exquis,” as rather cloying. With Les Apôtres things improve from this point of view. The sentimental side of the matter is perforce kept in the background, and the “kingdom of God,” the battle of spiritualism against materialism of all sorts, comes more to the front. It is in these later volumes, moreover, that the remarkable art of the writer becomes chiefly manifest. To weave a series of fragmentary notices, many of which his critical (or uncritical) method compels him to reject, into a connected narrative, to keep up the contrasted importance of the different parts, and in doing this to keep the double end, the inculcation of spirituality and of moral beauty, in view, without wearying the reader, is a task of sufficient difficulty in itself. But when it is remembered that to the immense majority of readers the story is already familiar, that they have from earliest youth been taught to expect and welcome it in one form only, and that they are (supposing other prepossessions absent) as much disposed as children are to resent alteration and addition in a favourite tale the difficulty becomes immensely complicated. Lastly, when we add to all this that the narrative has perforce to take the shape of something like a perpetual commentary, usually the most arid of literary forms, the hardness of the task is raised to very nearly the highest point, and it is clear that only literary faculty of a very remarkable kind could enable the author to discharge it.

Renan happens to combine in remarkably full measure the talent for conjecture and the talent for patient research.

The treatment of the subject is of course to a great extent conditioned by its nature, yet it is at the same time shaped by the idiosyncrasy of the practitioner. Of the fortunes of the Christian Church, from the date of the Crucifixion to the beginning of the third century, neither document nor tradition, orthodox or unorthodox, gives any connected survey. On the other hand, an immense body of literature of all kinds, sacred and profane, Jewish, Christian, and Pagan, religious, historical, and philosophical, survives containing the materials, the pieces of such a history. A critic of the sober school, whether belonging to the merely dry-as-dust order or to the product-of-the-circumstances sect, would assuredly find too many gaps to be filled, more or less conjecturally, to please him. Biographers and historians of this class like a subject upon which the full light of day has been thrown, where there is abundant material, and where the task is little more than one of skilful combination and intelligent interpreting.

renan_vfOn the other hand, the merely superficial theoriser would find himself hampered by the multitude of scrappy details, jutting up like the tops of submarine rocks, useless and almost impossible for purposes of landing and agriculture, but sufficient to render careless navigation exceedingly dangerous. Many an ingenious theory has been upset before now by a troublesome and sterile fact of this kind. But M. Renan happens to combine in remarkably full measure the talent for conjecture and the talent for patient research. The way in which he has followed up in courageous dives the submarine world which connects, or might very conceivably connect, the emerging points of fact or tradition, is a triumph of the combined method. The book, like most other histories where the imagination is strongly represented, and perhaps with greater justice than in any other case, has been called a romance. It would be fairer to call it a conjectural restoration of history. All conjectural restorations incline to the romantic.

A detail worthy of notice in estimating M. Renan’s choice and use of his materials is his extreme predilection for the apocryphal sacred books, both Jewish and Christian, and especially for the apocryphal apocalypses.

A detail worthy of notice in estimating M. Renan’s choice and use of his materials is his extreme predilection for the apocryphal sacred books, both Jewish and Christian, and especially for the apocryphal apocalypses. Since the alteration of the lectionary and the disuse of the custom of binding up the apocrypha with the Old and New Testaments, it is probably that such of these singular documents as used to be recognised by the Church of England are unknown even to some persons professedly observant of religious matters in this country. Some of them again, such as the Book of Enoch and the Shepherd of Hermas (which, by the way, is not strictly an apocryphal book), have never among us had even this chance of recognition. As far as literary merits go there can be no doubt that this obsolescence is a great pity. There are not many more delightful books of their class than the Wisdom of Soloman, than Ecclesiasticus, and than the Fourth Book of Esdras. To all these “oubliés et dédaignés” M. Renan has given his particular attention, and his analyses of many of them, notably of the Shepherd and the Fourth Book of Esdras, are not merely among the most attractive passages of his book, but are also excellent examples of literary abstracts. There are indeed many points about these books which appeal to such a critic. They are perhaps more saturated that the canonical books with the Semitic spirit, in that excited and recalcitrant form which it assumed in the days immediately preceding and immediately following the Christian era; they are full of vague but poetical imagery; they lend themselves in the most obliging way to the conjectural interpretations in reference to historical events of which M. Renan is so fond. Moreover they are in many cases romantic pictures of more or less private life which supply abundance of local colour as well as of information as to modes of thought. Thus they are the most fertile of quarries to a patient worker in mosaic, the most precious of colour-stores to such a painter as M. Renan, who has set himself to depict on a vast scale the whole spiritual and emotional life and movement of a time such as the first two centuries. Of the strictly narrative portions of the work produced on these principles and from these sources, it would be impossible here to give examples, nor is it necessary; but a few short extracts may perhaps help to illustrate the character of M. Renan’s style and also of his thought. The first shall be taken from the eloquent opening of Les Apôtres, in which the author sets forth the subjective view of the Resurrection:

But love and enthusiasm know no such thing as situations without an issue. They laugh at the impossible, and rather than abandon hope, will do violence to reality. Many well-remembered words of the Master, especially those in which he had foretold his future advent, could be interpreted in the sense of a resurrection from the tomb. Such a belief was, besides, so natural that the mere faith of the disciples might have sufficed for its production. The great prophets Enoch and Elijah had not taste death. The belief was even beginning to obtain that the patriarchs and the chief men of the elder dispensation were not really dead, and that their bodies lay in their sepulchres at Hebron still inhabited by life and by the soul. It was certain to happen in the case of Jesus, as it has happened in the case of all men who have arrested the attention of their fellows. The world, accustomed to attribute to them superhuman virtues, cannot admit that they have undergone the unjust and revolting law of death. At the moment when Mahomet expired, Omar quitted the tent, sword in hand, and threatened to strike the head off any one who dared to affirm that the prophet had ceased to live. Death is so unreasonable a thing when it falls on men of great heart or great genius, that the people refuse to believe such an error of nature possible. Heroes do not die. For is not that the true existence which is prolonged in the memory of those who love us? The adored Master had for years filled the little world of his companions with joy and hope. Could they consent to leave him to moulder in the tomb? No! He had lived too long and too intimately in the hearts of his followers for it not to be affirmed after his death that he was still alive for ever.

Here is a passage dealing less with psychology, and more with social theories:

The glory of the Jewish nation is to have proclaimed this principle [of social fraternity], whence arose the downfall of the elder states, and which is itself not destined to perish. The Jewish Law is social, not political; the prophets, the apocalyptic writers, advocate revolutions of a social, not of a political character. In the first half of the first century the Jews, brought face to face with profane civilisation, are animated with but one idea—to refuse the advantages of the Roman Law, a law atheistic, philosophic, productive merely of general equality, and to proclaim the excellence of their own theocratic law, which gives a religious and moral complexion to society. All Jewish thinkers, such as Philo and Josephus, hold that the Law is the secret of happiness. The laws of other peoples will have justice done; it is no matter to them whether the people be good or happy. The Jewish Law, on the contrary, descends into the minutest particulars of moral education. Christianity is a development of the same idea. … Every Church is a community where each has his claims on all, where there must be no one indigent, no one wicked, and where, in consequence, there is a mutual right of supervision and command. Primitive Christianity might be called a great association of the poor, a heroic effort against egotism based on the principle that the claims of the individual go no farther than to the absolutely necessary, and that superfluities belong to those who need. Between such a spirit and the spirit of Roman polity a war to the death is inevitable, while on the other hand Christianity can only succeed in ruling the world by modifying seriously its natural tendencies and its original programme.

Yet the needs which Christianity represents will abide eternally. Community of living, by the second half of the Middle Ages, having been abused by an intolerant Church, the monastery having become too often a feudal institution or a barrack of dangerous and fanatical soldiery, the modern spirit has shown itself unfavourable to it. We have forgotten that it is in the common life that the human soul has tasted most joy. The psalm, “How good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity,” has ceased to be our song. But when modern individualism has brought forth its final fruits, when humanity, dwarfed and saddened and become impotent, shall return to great institutions and manly discipline, when our mean society of citizens, our would of pygmies, shall have been beaten off by the heroic and idealist elements of humanity, then the common life will regain its value. Science and a crowd of other great things will be organised monastically with a continuity independent of mere fleshly inheritance. The importance attributed by our time to the family will diminish, and egotism, the essential principle of large societies, will no longer suffice great souls. A league of otherwise opposed forces will be formed against vulgarity. The words of Jesus, and the ideas of the Middle Ages on the subject of poverty, will once more appear reasonable. We shall understand how the mere possession of private property was once held to be an inferiority, and how the founders of mysticism argued for centuries whether Jesus had possessed “things which perish in the using.” The crochets of the Franciscans will become serious social problems, and the splendid ideal traced by the author of the Acts will be written as a prophetic revelation on the gates of the paradise of humanity.

AFTER THIS ELOQUENT prophecy of some of the things (more satisfactory at any rate than the restoration of Picrochole) which will happen à la venue des coquecigrues, let us take a picture of a more historical character:

ValaamLiturgyWhat characterised the religion of Greece in old days, what characterises it still, is its lack of the infinite and the vague; the tenderness and the feminine softness, the deep religious sentiments of the German and Celtic races, is wanting in the true Hellenes. The piety of the orthodox Greek consists in ritual and in outward observances. His churches, often of sufficient elegance, have none of the element of the terrible which distinguishes a Gothic minister. In this Eastern Christianity there are no tears, no prayers, no inward compunction. Even burials have a certain gaiety about them; they are celebrated in the evening, at set of sun, when the shadows are long, with soft music and the display of bright colours. The fanatical gravity of Latins displeases these lively, light-minded, untroubled races. The sick man himself is not depressed; death approaches his cheerily, and things around him smile. This is the secret of the divine gaiety of Homer and Plato; even the tale of Socrates’ death in the Phaedo has hardly a touch of sadness. To blossom, to bear fruit, that is life, and why ask for more? It is a superficial people, taking life as a thing with nothing supernatural in it, with no background. Such a simplicity of attitude depends to a great extent upon the climate, the purity of the air, the exhilaration which the mere breathing of it gives. But it depends also on the splendidly idealist instincts of the Hellenic race. A mere nothing suffices in Greece to produce the contentment which the sight of beauty causes. A tree, a flower, a lizard, a tortoise, awaking the remembrance of the thousand metamorphoses sung by the poets:—a tiny rivulet; a cranny in the rock dignified as a cave of the nymphs; a well with a cup on the brink; a strait like that at Poros, so narrow that the butterfies flit across it, yet navigable by mighty ships; orange and cypress groves that throw their shadow over the sea; a clump of pines on the rocks:–any of these is enough. To walk at night in the gardens, to listen to the cicale, to sit in the moonlight and play the flute, to drink of the mountain spring, bringing with one bread and fish and a flask of wine, with a song to accompany the repast; to crown head with flowers and the door lintels with leaves, at the family festivals; on public feast days to carry the thyrsus decked with foliage, to dance all day long, to play with tame kids—such are the pleasures of the Greek, pleasures of a poor and thrifty race, always young, inhabiting a delightful country, finding its joys in itself and in the goods the gods provide. The Theocritean idyl was in all Hellenic countries a simple fact; Greece always delighted in this elegant and amiable style of minor poetry, exact to life in her own case, in the case of all other countries stupid and unreal. Good-humour and joy in living are the special peculiarities of the Greek. He does not construe indulgere genio after the fashion of the Englishman’s heavy intoxication, of the Frenchman’s coarse disport; it is with him a simple result of reflection that Nature is good, and that it is right to follow her. To the Greek, indeed, Nature is a mistress of good taste, an instructress in virtue and rectitude: the notion of concupiscence, of a temptation by nature to do ill, is to him a contradiction. The fancy for dress which distinguishes the Palikari, and which shows itself so innocently in young Greek girls, is not the pompous vanity of the barbarian, the silly forwardness of the citizen’s wife, puffed up with a low-born pride, it is the simple sentiment of unaffected youth feeling itself the heir of the inventors of beauty.

One more short piece of a somewhat sterner character may serve to complete this miniature anthology and to show how M. Renan can, without effort or grandiloquence, convey the idea of the mysterious and the terrible:—

Since the Jewish nation, in a kind of despair, had taken to reflecting upon its destiny, the imagination of the people had directed itself with affectionate concentration to the ancient prophets. Now of all the personages of the past whose memory came like a dream in the night to agitate and excite the nation, the greatest was Elijah. This giant among the prophets in his savage solitude on Carmel, sharing the life of wild beasts, dwelling in the hollows of the rocks, whence from time to time he descended like a thunderbolt to make and unmake kings, had become, by a series of successive metamorphoses, a kind of supernatural being, sometimes visible, sometimes invisible, who had never tasted death. It was a general belief that Elijah would return and restore Israel. The austere life he had led, the terrible memories which he had left, and which still abide in the imagination of the East,3 his threatening image, which even now seems to spread terror and death, his whole legend, full of vengeance and fear, produced a lively impression on the mind, and stamped, as it were, a birthmark on the results of popular throes. Whosoever aspired to active eminence among the people was bound to imitate Elijah; and, as the solitary life had been the distinguishing peculiarity of this prophet, it became customary to look on the “man of God” as a hermit. It was imagined that all holy personages had had their period of penance, of austerity, of life in regions far from towns, and a retirement to the desert became thus the condition and prelude of lofty destinies.

I have given the note as well as the text here because it illustrates well the manner in which M. Renan builds his most literary passages on fragments of fact. A less accomplished artist would probably have dragged the pasha and the heads into the text, for the sake of emphasis and colour.

Everybody must see with his own eyes, and the most that outsiders can do is to lend spectacles to the short-sighted. M. Renan, if in this particular instance his glasses hardly suit our sight, is usually one of the most serviceable of opticians.

IN THIS WORK M. Renan must be regarded as one of the class of picturesque historians, a class of writers from whom the world has suffered many things in these last days. But he is a picturesque historian with a great many differences, and almost every one of these differences is in his favour. Eclectic and, to a great extent, imaginative as his method is, he can rarely be accused of actual exaggeration, or of affecting the picturesque for the picturesque’s sake. He is not in the habit of basing rhetorical generalisations upon nothing at all, merely to add to the forcible character of his picture. There is a sobriety about him which the weary reader, tired of fireworks, in vain demands from certain historians of the same general character in England. Moreover, his picturesqueness, such as it is, is in the strictest keeping with the general plan and purport of his book, and results logically from the principles which he has set before him. “Que je voudrais,” he says somewhere of the author of the Imitatio Christi, “être peintre, pour le montrer tel que je le conçois, doux et recueilli, assis en son fauteuil de chêne, dans le beau costume des bénédictins de Mont Cassin.» The assumption as to the authorship of the famous book may be matter of argument, but the sentence is the key to all the author’s own picturesque passages; they are resorted to simply to show us the person or the scene, such as the historian conceives it, and are thus illuminations, not squibs and crackers let off for the purpose of dazzling and crackling. Sometimes, of course, the subjectivity of view is rather excessive; it is certainly a hard saying when one finds M. Renan pronouncing Ecclesiastes “le seul livre amiable” that the Jewish spirit has ever produced. The Preacher is delightful reading no doubt, but amiable is about the last epithet that one would feel inclined to give him. However, everybody must see with his own eyes, and the most that outsiders can do is to lend spectacles to the short-sighted. M. Renan, if in this particular instance his glasses hardly suit our sight, is usually one of the most serviceable of opticians. With the principles that human nature, due difference being made for varieties of race, is everywhere and at all times pretty much the same—that outward circumstances may modify, but cannot wholly determine its action—that happiness, moral good, and intellectual cultivation are the objects of life, he has made edification and delight equally the objects of his book. He has, indeed, stated his main theory with sufficient clearness in the preface to his Essais de Morale et de Critique. “Morality is the one thing eminently serious and true, and by itself it suffices to give meaning and direction to life. Impenetrable veils hide from us the secret of this world, whose reality is at once irresistible and oppressive. Philosophy and science will for ever pursue without ever attaining the formula of this Proteus, unlimited by reason, inexpressible in language. But there is one foundation which no doubt can shake, and in which man will ever find a firm ground amidst his uncertainties; good is good and evil is evil. No system is necessary to enable us to hate the one and love the other; and it is in this sense that faith and love, possessing no seeming connection with the intellect, are the true base of moral certainty, and the only means possessed by man of understanding in some slight measure the problem of his origin and destiny.”

Some notable failings and dislikes of M. Renan’s give us important side-lights on his literary and critical character. One such is his attitude towards the Middle Ages. He has written and read about them more than most people, and it requires some courage to bring a charge of short-coming against the author of Averroès, and of the excellent discourse on the Art of the Fourteenth Century in France. Yet it is soon tolerably clear to an attentive reader, and perfectly clear to one who has some knowledge of mediaeval literature, that M. Renan is out of sympathy with the Ages of Faith. He is even so far out of sympathy with them that he fails altogether to understand them in some Averroesimportant points, which have nothing whatever to do with theology or Church history. We rub our eyes when we come to the statement (in the preface of Averroès et l’Averroïsme), that the Middle Ages, “intellectually speaking, represent nothing but gropings after a return to antiquity.” It would be safer to affirm the exact contrary. In hardly a single great instance of the intellectual development of the Middle Ages is there any real affinity with the spirit of classicism. With characteristic and uncritical docility they sometimes borrowed classical forms, dressed themselves up in scraps of classical ore, proposed classical masters as objects of admiration and reverence. But in reality the two are poles asunder. The author of Roland is separated from the author of the Iliad, the author of Lancelot du Lac from the author of the Odyssey, Audefroy le Bastard from Horace, Anselm from Aristotle, Villehardouin from Thucydides, by a gulf which no possible “gropings” could traverse. Accordingly, whenever M. Renan deals with the Middle Ages, and especially with Scholasticism, he is unsatisfactory, because he is unsympathetic. Nor is the reason of this by any means far to seek; it is not the religious side of the Middle Ages that repels him, but their moral and aesthetic side. He seems to miss in them the sunny aspect which attracts him alike in things Eastern and in things Greek. The strong shadows that give the character and, to some persons, the attraction of Gothic architecture, make him shiver. If there is any part of Europe during those times on which he looks with satisfaction it is Spain, Provence, and perhaps Italy—all lands that love to lie in the sun—not his own Brittany and northern France, and England and Germany, with their gloom and their combativeness, and the absence of rose-pink and sky-blue in their pictures. In particular M. Renan has evidently a strong dislike to fighting. For such a master of description his sketch of the Siege of Jerusalem is comparatively tame, and he passes over the Battle of Bedriacum—which still awaits its picturesque historian, though surely no battle of the nations ever better deserved one—with a hasty shudder at its butchery. It may be suspected that M. Renan, patriotic as he is, by no means shares the modern admiration for “l’Épopée Française,” and that the Chansons de Gestes, with the ceaseless ring of their assonances, clashing like lance on shield and sword on helmet, seem to him distinctly barbarous. He is more at home in the Arthurian legends, for which any native of Brittany must feel a certain reverence. But on the whole the presence of the warlike spirit, against which he again and again testifies, is too strong in the Middle Ages for M. Renan. He says somewhere, “J’aime le moyen âge,” but I venture to doubt whether his affection is spontaneous and genuine.

BasilidesAnother interesting point in the critic’s mental disposition is his attitude towards philosophy of the more abstract kind. Here again, wherever he has to touch on such matters, an absence of sympathy is apparent—strikingly, for instance, in the account of the Gnostic sects in the last volume of the Origines. To any one who has a weakness for speculation, there is something especially fascinating in the fragmentary notices of Basilides and Valentinus, which have come down to us in the sorriest possible condition in which any such notices could possibly come, involved, that is to say, in the partisan refutations of their adversaries. To these unfortunates M. Renan devotes indeed some admirable pages, but they do not inspire him with half the interest that is excited by, let us say, the Shepherd of Hermas, that curious mixture of the devout gallantry of the seventeenth century with the apocalyptic fancies of the second. Not many men have been more in contact with Scholastic literature than M. Renan, but here again the fantastic attraction which that literature has for some people seems to exercise no influence over him. He evidently does not feel the magnetism of unbridled logic which sometimes tempts the reader in moments of weakness to devote the rest of his life to Quaestiones Quodlibetales, and such like ware. His allusions, not merely in his book on Averroes but elsewhere, to Scholasticism, are possibly just, but certainly harsh. Its absence of form and colour and human interest seems to repel him. This being so, it is not surprising that he should speak of the later philosophy of Germany with respect indeed, but hardly with affection, and still less with enthusiasm. Hegel certainly cannot have much attraction for one who is proof against Basilides and Erigena and Occam. Even in his handling of Spinosa the dialectic element is kept out of sight in a very singular manner. Some of the contents of the Dialogues et Fragments Philosophiques may seem to contradict this view. But the greater part of that curious book appears to me to represent no permanent or deep-rooted convictions of its author. Events had for a moment upset M. Renan’s equanimity, and he retired upon philosophy. Moreover, in the study which concludes it (La Métaphysique et son Avenir), his more habitual attitude towards such questions reappears distinctly enough. Indeed it is in this respect that the practical aspect of M. Renan’s mind is most evident. He has his Utopias, no doubt; indeed he is very largely estated in those shadowy regions. But they are on the whole very practical Utopias, and the inhabitants are more occupied with conduct than with speculation, with their duties towards their neighbours than with the contemplation of their own interiors. In the Royaume de Dieu of which he is so fond, it does not appear that Barbara and Celarent will occupy a very high place among the thrones and dominations recognised by the constitution.

BerangerYET ONE MORE of these inquiries into the dislikes of the subject. I do not know that anywhere in a dozen pages a writer has thrown more light upon his own individuality than M. Renan has thrown in the little piece entitled “La Théologie de Béranger,” which may be found reprinted at the end of the Questions Contemporaines. It is, perhaps, the only occasion on which he becomes literally violent and intolerant. In the pieces which concern his own grievances, in those which regard the not very handsome treatment he received during the unlucky Strauss correspondence, there is nothing half so sharp as in this review of “Le Béranger des Familles.” For persons mischievously disposed there is something extremely comic in the spectacle of one of the most benevolent and amiable writers of the last part of the century completely losing his temper and his charity with one of the most benevolent and amiable writers of the first part. As happens, moreover, in nineteen cases out of twenty, when the critic ceases to be impassive he loses his critical faculty. I certainly do not agree with those who, knowing French literature only partially, hold exaggerated notions of Béranger’s excellence. But there is something more in the author of songs which range from “Le Grenier” to “Les Fous” than the mere vulgarity which is all or nearly all that M. Renan can see in him. In his repetition of the old preference of the insipid pastorals and jargon-ditties of Desaugiers to the work of Béranger, I cannot but think that M. Renan makes a capital error. But this very error is respectable enough in its way, and certainly characteristic. Béranger’s Chauvinism, his affectation of the unpleasant but purely conventional style which is called in French grivois, his adoption of the stock French habit—as old as the Fabliaux—of delighting in the degradation of feminine character, are all things that M. Renan cannot away with. Doubtless, too, they are all very bad things. If the present object were the rehabilitation of Béranger—a task which is superfluous, and for which I have no particular inclination—a good deal would have to be said on the other side. But at present the subject is not Béranger, but his critic, and that critic’s idiosyncrasy. It is easy to see in this protest the outcry of offended spiritualism and delicacy indignant at seeing its gods hobnobbed with, its ideals of the eternal feminine exchanged for the less amiable if more easily found types of the baggage-waggon and the pavements, and its notions of duty, liberty, peace, and justice passed by, in order that homage may be paid to the Napoleonic legend, and that militarism may be held up as the first instinct of man. These three crimes are of all things most distasteful to M. Renan, and unluckily they are among the things most prominent in Béranger’s works, at least in the more popular portion of them. Once more our author has told us what he is, by telling us the persons with whom he does not live.

[Renan] is far removed…from the purely indifferent criticism of form rather than matter in life and literature which has been so strongly represented during that time.

If this account of the principles of M. Renan’s literary and critical character be correct, it is evident that it stands in striking contrast to two other schools which have between them divided most of the critical talent of France during the last half century. In the first place it is far removed—to the extent, indeed, of complete antipathy—from the purely indifferent criticism of form rather than matter in life and literature which has been so strongly represented during that time. Of such criticism there have of course been many varieties, differing with the idiosyncrasy of the critics. The sarcastic and, in a way, severe attitude of Mérimée is not the good-natured and purely apolaustic attitude of Gautier. But in all this school there may be said to be sometimes an impatience, sometimes a dislike, sometimes a simple neglect or omission, of the moral view of questions of literature or conduct. On the other hand M. Renan’s process stands in equally sharp contrast to the still more popular method of Sainte-Beuve, one side of which has been developed to an extent which may fairly be called exaggerated by M. Taine. This latter method, as thus exaggerated, consists, it need hardly be said, in treating the man and his work as for the most part an effect and not a cause. Its practitioners, in order to explain their patient, set to work to examine his milieu in every possible way, and, at any rate professedly, are content to accept the results of their examination as an explanation. The spirit of the age, the character of the surroundings, the influences of grandfathers and grandmothers, the style of education, living, and so forth, are taken as the data out of which the result is to be got. It would not be true, of course, to say that moral considerations exercise no influence over this class of critic, or that he has no likes or dislikes. But his likes and his dislikes are not ostensibly governed by any a priori principles, and concern the individual criticised less than the influences which are supposed to have produced him.

CousinWith M. Renan the case is quite different. He has so much of Cousin in him (of Cousin, of whom he never fails to speak with a somewhat exaggerated respect) that the big words Vrai, Beau, and Bien, or, it is be preferred, the great things which these big words signify, are always present before him. As a man or a book happens to fall in or to fall out with these notions of his, so the man or the book is judged. Nor is he apt to attribute much force to the product-of-the-century theory. An accurate student of history is never likely to ignore the general tendency of periods. But in the formation of that general tendency M. Renan is willing to allow a great deal more force to the influence, and especially to the moral influence, of individuals than most other critics of the day. It is thus that in his principal work he is continually striving to hold up the personality of the actors clearly to view, even when there is the very smallest evidence of that personality to go upon. In judging personalities, too, he never lets himself be carried away by any fascinations of the paradoxical ultra-literary sort. He has perfectly well exposed the oddities of Nero’s character, but those oddities have not inclined him to be lenient to the implacable, beautiful tyrant. If he is disposed to let Nero off at all gently, it is not because of his grandiose fancies, his unquiet searching after some new and infinite form of evil, but because Poppaea and Acte were to all appearance really attached to him. In this point even Nero falls among the things that seem to M. Renan lovely and of good report.

Indeed the last words fairly enough describe the character of his general predilections. The affections of all kinds—though M. Renan has an odd craze that family affection is an “égoïsme à plusieurs” very liable to abuse—are the coefficients of human character with which he likes best to deal. In matter of natural beauty he inclines in the same way to the idyllic and pastoral. Even in such points as his views on education and science, the same solicitude for the presence of a human interest of the softer sort manifests itself. He is exceedingly anxious that France should devote herself more than has hitherto been the case to “hautes études.” But the hautes études which attract him are not mathematics or abstract philosophy, but comparative philology, critical history, the study of religion, all of them more or less intimately connected with the hopes and fears, the daily life and daily wants of the endless generations behind us. Whatsoever is abstract, bloodless, and dry, repels him. Despite the Lettre à M. Berthelot and some other things, I should doubt whether he has much genuine affection for what is commonly called natural science. The touch of materialism and of inhumanity which often accompanies the pursuit of such science, must necessarily revolt him.

Renan-gillThus such force as M. Renan can exert is a force in the direction of spiritualism, morality of a certain kind, peaceable flows of soul. It may sometimes be difficult to square his apparent views and desires with any accurate estimate of the history of the past, or the probabilities of the future. The pleasant cloudy Utopias which he describes, in which great Pan seems to be alive again, and everybody contributes to the foundation and confirmation of the kingdom of God by inoffensive conduct, freedom from uncomfortable striving and πλεονεξία, and the cultivation of comparative philology and the domestic affections, seem occasionally to be situated in a land that is very far off. It has indeed been observed by the wisdom of the elders that the rainbow rarely touches the ground quite close to the spectator’s feet, and that St. Brandan’s Isle, and other regions of the blest, have a knack of fleeing before the seeker.

To say anything about men of science is as dangerous in these days as it once was to say anything about bishops, but it may at least be hinted that the cultivation of the softer feelings has not hitherto received any very active assistance from them.

NEVERTHELESS IT IS impossible to assign any but a beneficial tendency to an influence of this kind at such a time as the present. M. Renan represents in French literature the tradition which his countryman Châteaubriand founded, or borrowed from Rousseau, nearly a century ago, and which was continued to our own days by George Sand—the tendency, that is to say, to rely upon and appeal to the emotions rather than the intellect, to dress up amiable thoughts in gorgeous or elegant language, to philosophise, if possible ἄνευ μαλακίας, and to cultivate the beautiful with such regard to εὐτέλεια as may be. His literary taste is much better than Châteaubriand’s, though his imaginative power is considerably less; and he rarely lapses into the merely tawdry or the merely sentimental. His philosophy is a good deal saner and less windy than George Sand’s (though, as we have seen, he too has a slight weakness for apocalypses), and he has a good deal more of the practical spirit than the Châtelaine of Nohant. Neither of his forerunners was a very distinguished practitioner of purely literary criticism, nor is M. Renan. His opinions on certain points are too definitely and obtrusively present with him for that, and he does not attain to the absolute catholicity which is the first requisite of the literary critic. It is doubtful whether in this direction he could even get as far as the paradox of Thackeray on Swift—“I suppose there is no person who reads but must admire… and I say that, great as he is, we should hoot him.” The desire to hoot would get the better of even the preliminary admiration in M. Renan’s case. But if his value as a critic of literature be unequal, it is still considerable. His remarks on the classical French literature of the seventeenth century are among the very best ever made by a Frenchman, being equally distant from the parrot-cry of admiration which is now raised more loudly than ever by the neo-classic school in France, and from the exaggerated depreciation of the romantique à tous crins. Yet his real value is not that of a critic of life. In face of what, with a fine confusion of language, are sometimes called the positive and sometimes the negative tendencies of the day, tendencies which in any case make for a certain hardness of moral texture, the presence of an authority of this kind, taking up his parable and preaching charity, mutual good-will, the admiration of harmless things, and the cultivation of blameless feelings, ought to be counted as on the whole a healthy influence. It is the business no doubt of the avowedly religious person to perform this same function, and to a great extent he does perform it, but in the case of those who do not agree with him he suffers from the reciprocal conjugation of the historical verb je suis suspect, tu es suspect, etc. The extremer political reformer is very much more occupied in furthering his views at any cost than in taking measures to prevent his own manners or anybody else’s from becoming fierce. Ordinary politicians and ordinary men of business have something else to do, and are naturally inclined to look upon the function as by no means a practical one. The quaint sentence of surprised contempt which M. Renan in his essay on Channing devotes to the temperance movement, points out excellently the gulf between the philanthropist of the professional kind and his own larger, if vaguer, philanthropy. To say anything about men of science is as dangerous in these days as it once was to say anything about bishops, but it may at least be hinted that the cultivation of the softer feelings has not hitherto received any very active assistance from them. Last of all comes the class of professed devotees of literature and art; among whom, after a manner, M. Renan himself must be classed. Their attitude towards his methods and aims is perhaps not less unfavourable than that of other classes. They have, as was hinted at the beginning, a natural horror of anything like “gush,” and they have had so much trouble to keep their own studies clear of the question of moral tendency and influence, that they are apt to look on that question with disfavor. Hence sentiment, as distinguished from passion on one side, business on another, and devotion on a third, has not recently had a good time of it in the world, being regarded by some as a mere counterfeit of something better; by others, as unpractical and womanish; by others, again, as leading to absurdities and slips of taste which should, above all things, be avoided. It is in the gap thus formed that M. Renan has with sufficient courage taken his stand. His gospel may certainly be said to be a vague gospel, and the enemy may contend that Morgane la Fée is architect and clerk of the works at the buildings which he so industriously edifies with graceful words and, at the same time, with a vast quantity of solid learning. But of his literary skill there can be no question, and scarcely less of the admirable character of his intentions.

The concluding volume of his great work is a fitting close to the whole, and moreover one of its most interesting parts. In Marcus Aurelius M. Renan found an example of one of those fortunate persons whom, as he himself said in a juvenile work many years ago, “la tempête a laissés au milieu du grand océan pacifique, mer sans vagues et sans rivages, où l’on n’a d’autre étoile que la raison, ni d’autre boussole que son cœur. » Marcus has not exactly produced this effect upon all his readers, but it is all the more interesting to see in what manner he produced the effect on M. Renan. This effect has given us a very satisfactory volume both from the literary and philosophical point of view. From the former M. Renan has enriched the world with a great deal of excellent work, free from the stiffness and aridity which too often characterise the work of learned writers, possessed of a singular and somewhat feminine charm of suppleness, softness, and colour, but seldom deserving the unfavourable epithets of effeminacy, flaccidity, or tawdriness. From the latter he has supplied a distinct want in the thought of the time by advocating charity in the full Pauline sense against egotism, morality against mere aestheticism or mere intellectualism, attention to the spiritual as contrasted with the merely material interests of humanity. I happen (were this of the slightest importance) to differ from his views on a great majority of points, from the life of Christ to the advantages of living in common, and from Marcus Aurelius to Béranger. It has been all the greater pleasure to me to try and appreciate his literary character and position, in what I conceive to be the only spirit allowable for the critic.


From the 1892 edition of Collected Essays:

THE PRECEDING PAGES were written in 1880,4 when M. Renan came to London to deliver the Hibbert Lectures for that year. They comprise a pretty complete survey of his literary work up to that date; and I think they may be without difficulty wrought into a still more complete estimate both of his work and of his life. The life, it is to be hoped, may be prolonged, but the character of the work is not likely to be much affected by any subsequent production, remarkable as is the produce which these ten years have yielded. The Souvenirs d’enfance et de jeunesse have given a certain right to speak of the life of a man still living, a subject which, without such provocation, is in my judgment always better avoided; the work has been increased and its characteristics deepened and emphasised (not, I fear it must be said, always favourable) by the chief of the volumes published since the Drames Philosophiques, the Histoire d’Israël, and the long post-dated Avenir de la Science.

TréguierErnest Joseph Renan was born at Tréguier on the 27th of February 1823, and from very early days was destined to the priesthood. He has told us how, when a seminarist at Saint-Sulpice, he found himself dissatisfied with his proposed profession and the creed which it involved. Or rather he has not told us. No man ever tells that story with perfect sincerity; there go too many and too subtle influences to the making of it. Nor in a purely literary study of M. Renan is there any need to inquire into these influences. It is sufficient to say that his clerical studies determined him in that way of Semitic science in which he persevered when the original determining influence had ceased. I have been assured of his competence in it by undoubted authorities, who frankly confessed at the same time that they approved neither of his original instruction nor of his later method. For a time he divided his attention between Semitic and mediaeval subjects, and his first notable book of a literary character was that on Averroes, above referred to; though it will be observed that here the two studies met. He became an official of the Bibliothèque Nationale, was favoured in divers ways by divers administrations, and in 1860 was sent to Syria on one of those “missions,” which are so incomprehensible to the British and so convenient to the French man of letters. He was shortly afterwards made Professor of Hebrew at the Collége de France.

BUT MEANWHILE THERE had appeared, as a consequence chiefly of his Syrian visit, the famous Vie de Jésus, which developed itself into the many-volumed Origines du Christianisme. The clamour raised against his appointment to a professorship was for a time successful, and M. Renan, as he must have anticipated, had to bear much harsh language. His career, however, at least since 1870, has been one of genuine success, though he never was able to enter the Chamber, despite various attempts. Of late years he has taken up a peculiar attitude, of which he before-mentioned Souvenirs d’enfance et de jeunesse were in a sort the manifesto—an attitude of benevolent condescension both to the faiths which he has left and to the unfaiths which in a manner have left him. This is not an easy attitude to maintain without slips of taste, and M. Renan has been sufficiently guilty of them; but it has been to some extent excused in his case by the unquestioned supremacy which time and his own merits have given him among French men of letters. There is as the present moment no one who can write French of the best kind as M. Renan can write it; and it would not be altogether just to attribute this merely to the lapse of time, the death of rivals, and the disuse of good practice by the younger generation. A man who between sixty and seventy can produce such work as the books I have named, work in some respects revealing new faculties and in none showing any degeneration, as far as literature goes, of the old, is rare in any literary history.

We need not delay very long over L’Avenir de la Science, which could hardly have been published forty years after date (the original publication having been prevented by sage counsel of friends and the revolution of February) by any man who was less serenely conscious of his own value, or whose literary position was less sure. M. Renan has belittled the formal value of the book in his preface so ingeniously that there is nothing left to say of that. But in truth and in fact its substantial worth is very small except for biographical purposes; and even here a tolerably experienced student of human nature in general, and of M. Renan’s nature in particular, could almost dispense with it. Take a young man of great intellectual ability, and still greater (though as yet undeveloped) literary faculty; suppose in him a wide course of reading and the mental excitement caused on one hand by the abandonment of his faith of his childhood and the presence everywhere of novel ideas, socialist and other; add the study of German models which inclined him to throw his random thoughts on things in general into a form of quasi-system; add yet again the industry necessary to write five hundred large pages of rather close print—and you have L’Avenir de la Science.

Renan-ZornVery different are the two other works to which I have referred. The Histoire d’Israël is one of the most extraordinary books ever written. With no loss of literary power, it exaggerates the oddities in method of the Origines to a tenfold degree. One of the most diverting critical exercises known to me is that of the late M. Scherer on its first volume. M. Scherer was by no means an orthodox person; he had (later and after far more struggles) gone through the same process which M. Renan performed rather light-heartedly at Saint-Sulpice; he admired the style; he was not shocked at the conclusions. But as a serious critic he was very much shocked at the method. He grows almost plaintive over it. “Il fait usage,” cries he, “du document condamné comme s’il ne l’avait pas condamné!» Elsewhere «il généralise des faits individuels, il érige des faits accidentels en usages constant. » Elsewhere, again, « il lui arrive parfois d’insérer dans son récit un détail qui complète l’image et la situation sauf à nous déclarer en note qu’il n’en faut rien croire. » Alas ! it is but too true ; it is even a great deal less that the truth. Let any one turn to the first volume and examine the structure which M. Renan has built out of the single and doubtful word “Jacobel”; to the second, and digest the marvellous romance in which, by combining the Book of Kings with the forty-fifth Psalm, applying the terms of the latter to Ahab’s bride, and adding any quantity of his own peculiar sentiment, he has succeeded in making a Jezebel who is a sort of compound of Mary Queen of Scots, Maria Theresa, Aspasia, Semiramis, and Cleopatra; to the third, and contemplate the picture of the last days of Jerusalem before the Babylonish conquest. If, knowing something of criticism and of logic, he be a serious person, he will, like M. Scherer, be aghast. If he unite frivolity with the same knowledge, he will be in constant fits of laughter. Never was such iconoclasm joined to such castle-building on nothing,–such a determination not to accept documents as wholly true, mingled with such willingness to accept any part that can be made convenient, without the slightest evidence that it is more trustworthy than its context. The book sometimes reads like a designed caricature of the author’s own methods in the earlier Origines, the methods of conjectural restoration which I have indicated. In face of this caricature it is perhaps a critical duty to speak more bluntly, and pronounce the whole thing delightful but preposterous. It is indeed no wonder that writers like M. Scherer should have looked gravely on it. For it is something worse than a caricature of M. Renan; it is a caricature, and a very damaging one, of the whole methods of biblical criticism. And it must have made not a few readers ask themselves whether other professors of that certainly not too modest science, though they may lack M. Renan’s exuberance, his luxuriance, and his literary skill, are not at bottom one with him in the habit of arbitrary selection and unfounded judgment.

In his attitude towards books and men Renan stands apart from any other school or individual of his own country and of the Continent…

RenanThese books, though they brought out and threw up some of the defects in M. Renan’s literary character, showed him in no absolutely new light. The Souvenirs d’enfance et de jeunesse and still more the Drames Philosophiques (the series of which had just been opened with Caliban when I wrote originally, and which were later completed by L’Eau de Jouvence, Le Prêtre de Némi, and L’Abbesse de Jouarre), did to a certain extent exhibit him in such a light, the effects of which were partly favourable and partly not. The Drames in particular may count among the most remarkable work that a man verging on his sixtieth year with the first of them, and long past it at the date of the last, ever produced. They had a great success—in the case of the last a success decidedly of scandal; and however mixed may be the feelings of admiration with which a pure taste may regard them, they are certainly clever (a word which I select advisedly) in the very highest degree. One part of their cleverness lies in the manifold and apparently indiscriminate satire which the author pours on things and persons, without ever running into the cut-and-dried. Democracy and aristocracy, the classes and the masses, religion and irreligion, worldliness and unworldliness, morality and immorality, all come in for this satire; and if there are not infrequent lapses of taste, there are few of brains. The most curious thing—not entirely unexpected perhaps by careful readers, but still curious—was the development of a sort of refined but rather ungentlemanly sensuality which M. Renan showed. There is not coarseness in any of these books. But in parts of L’Eau de Jouvence, in the treatment if not the donnée of L’Abbesse de Jouarre, and in some prefatory remarks to the Souvenirs especially, there is a most singular Cyrenaicism. The Royaume de Dieu becomes a sort of Otaheite, and each shepherd, provided that he has previously taken all his degrees and is an enlightened person, is permitted, nay! encouraged, to clasp his yielding fair one in the sage’s sight. The effect was not altogether delightful, owing to a sentiment of human nature which has been put magisterially by the bagman in Pickwick. “You all know, gentlemen, to hear an old fellow who ought to know better talking about these things is very unpleasant.” M. Renan has even shocked some disciples and critics, not always old fogies, who cannot pretend to be at all straitlaced in their own principles and practice, and he certainly has exhibited the operations of the spirit in a manner suited not only to shock those who are sensitive, but to cause those of them who are critical and combative to blaspheme him with no small show of reason.

It may be that egotism is a specially French quality, though it is fair to say that third parties do not seem to see much difference between French and English in this matter. But in M. Renan, whether as a matter of idiosyncrasy or a matter of nationality, it has reached its climax.

THESE LATER WORKS, indeed, while even increasing one’s respect for M. Renan’s cleverness, for his wonderful command of French, and so forth, may serve to emphasise and fill in a judgment which, as the acute reader will have perceived, was adumbrated from the beginning of the foregoing essay. In some purely literary gifts M. Renan has had few superiors among the men of our time. Never sublime or manly, he can touch almost every chord within the range of the French language except the chords of manliness and sublimity. Pathos, gentle satire, pure narration, exposition which is half argument and half narrative, imaginative construction, supple and subtle interpretation; he can do them all, and do them goldenly. In three things, and three things only, does he go wrong—in his excess of egotism, in his defect of taste, which comes from a defect of reverence, and in the weakness of his reasoning power, properly so called. It may be that egotism is a specially French quality, though it is fair to say that third parties do not seem to see much difference between French and English in this matter. But in M. Renan, whether as a matter of idiosyncrasy or a matter of nationality, it has reached its climax. The mere presence of the je and the moi-même (though perhaps he abuses even them when his subjects are considered) would go for nothing. But every sentence, though the moi haïssable may be leagues off in appearance, is saturated with self-consciousness. Even Byron is not M. Renan’s superior or inferior in always thinking of himself whatsoever he is writing about. This of itself would argue a defect of taste; but the defect is shown in other ways which have been glanced at both in the earlier and in the later part of this essay. I have heard him accused of “greasiness,” and I am afraid there is a good deal to be said for the charge. Whether it be due to the advanced age at which he became an erotic writer, or to some other cause, he is deficient in passion. The breaking of her vows by the Abbesse de Jouarre, on the supposed eve of her execution, is not an impossible subject by any means, though it is a difficult one; it is made impossible, or at least offensive, simply by M. Renan’s own manner of dealing with it.

Perhaps, however, all his defects may be set down to the weakness of his reasoning power, which for a professed philosopher is remarkable, and is scarcely less obvious than that of Victor Hugo. The paralogisms and question-beggings visible in the Origines and glaring in the Histoire d’Israël may be paralleled from every division of his work. And so the adversary may say, without too much injustice, of M. Renan that to the discussion of the most serious of subjects he brings chiefly the faculties of a novelist, or rather those of a poet who should happen to be incapacitated for writing poetry and for feeling it in its noblest forms, and who can but write soft, warm, exquisitely coloured, exquisitely undulating and palpitating prose.5 [1892]

George Saintsbury was an English writer, literary historian, scholar, critic and a noted oenophile. He was the author of several surveys of French literature, among many other books.

The essay leading this page appeared in May 1880 issue of The Fortnightly Review. It has been newly transcribed for the New Series.


  1. From the archive of The Fortnightly Review, Volume 33, May 1880. See also the appended ‘postscript’ from 1892.
  2. Latest in 1880, the original date of this essay. The subsequent work will be found summarised infra.
  3. Abdallah, the ferocious Pasha of Acre, nearly died of fright after beholding the Prophet in a dream standing erect on the Mount. In the pictures of the Christian churches the portrait of Elijah is surrounded with severed heads, and the Mussulmans themselves fear him. —M. Renan’s Note.
  4. The Fortnightly Review, Volume 33, May 1880.
  5. The publication, while this volume was passing through the press, of a new collection of M. Renan’s miscellanies entitled Feuilles Détachées, necessitates no alteration in the above postscript. Indeed both the text and the preface (the latter partly apologetic) only illustrate further what is there said.
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