RENAN, re-nân', JOSEPH ERNEST: French orientalist; b. at Tréguier (60 m. n.e. of Brest and 5 m. from English Channel), Brittany, Feb. 27,1823; d. at Paris Oct. 2, 1892. Having lost his father at the age of five, his early training was received from his mother and his sister Henriette, eleven years older than himself, in the pious atmosphere of his Breton home. In 1838 he went to Paris and studied four years in the petit séminaire of St. Nicholas de Chardonnet, after which he studied philosophy at the grand séminaire of Issy (1842-44) and theology at St. Sulpice (1844-45). Even at Issy the skepticism had been aroused which was later to lead him to break with the Church, for the arguments of Locke, Leibnitz, Malebranche, Cousin, Jouffray, and others often seemed to Renan more cogent than the arguments advanced against them. The process of revolt was completed at St. Sulpice largely through the study of oriental philology and the books of German Protestant theology, which led him to a mad enthusiasm for German thought, stil1 further enhanced by the influence of German Protestantism. The crisis came as the time approached for his ordination, and disregarding the grief of his mother and the entreaty of his teacher, he left the seminary an Oct. 6, 1845, firmly convinced that he could remain true to Christ only by separating from the Church. Declining to avail himself of the 1,200 francs saved by Henriette, who, filled with similar doubts, had encouraged her brother in his step, Renan, after a brief engagement at the Jesuit Collège Stanislas, received free board and lodging in return for teaching two hours daily in a small school. This gave him ample time to prepare for the university examination, and in May, 1848, he completed a dissertation on the medieval study of Greek, becoming agrégé de philosophie in September of the same year. At the same time he studied Hebrew, Arabic, Syriac, and Sanskrit, and worked in mythology, in the history of religion, and in German theology. By June, 1849, he had written his L'Avenir de la science (Paris, 1890; Eng. transl., The Future of Science, London, 1891), which was to give his theories of the universe and the plans of his life-work. At the advice of his friends, the book was not then published; and realizing, in the revolution of 1848, the impracticality of its visionary philosophical and political ideals, Renan plunged into history and philology. Gradually, however, he became more and more attracted to Semitic philology, so that in 1857 he was nominated for the professorship of Hebrew at the College de France, though his appointment was not confirmed by the government until Jan. 11, 1862.
Meanwhile Renan had gone to Palestine with his sister Henriette (d. at Byblus, now Jebeil, 20 m. s.w. of Tripoli, in 1860), and there he wrote in the hut of a Maronite on Mt. Lebanon his Vie de Jésus (the first volume of his Origines du christianisme), which made a sensation both within and without religious circles throughout Europe. A flood of replies from Roman Catholics and Protestants alike gave the book a distinction which it did not merit. Yet as contrasted with D. F. Strauss' work of the same title Renan's book marks an advance. The unhistorical method of presenting the origin of Christianity upon the scheme of the Hegelian philosophy is given up. The myth theory of Jesus was changed to a legend theory, and the personality of Christ was sought from the geographical, social, cultural, and religious conditions under which he lived and worked. Amid the locally colored picture of the land and the people of Galilee the figure of Jesus is given a setting; not in accordance with the laws of historic truth, but with the esthetic motives and philosophical preconceptions of the author. With the most unbridled license in the treatment of his sources, of which the Fourth Gospel was the most expedient for his esthetic object, he produced a romance which would have been an admirable tribute to his poetic power had his hero been a character less ethical than Jesus. To him Jesus was a gentle Galilean, the darling of women, and an exquisite preacher of morality, dreaming of no other than the paradise of fraternal fellowship of the children of God upon earth; yet filled with ambition, vanity, sensual love, and undisguised deceit. The first sojourn of Jesus in Galilee was a delightful idyll; for a year, perhaps, God was an earth; a constant charm as of magic proceeded from Jesus. But the Baptist transformed him into a religious revolutionary, a sinister prophet, who assumed the role of the Messiah, accommodating the desire for the miraculous of his simple disciples, and perishing in the battle with orthodox Judaism. The great mistake of Jesus with Renan was to forget that the ideal is fundamentally ever a utopia and in conflict with the material for realization loses its purity. Then he who lives for the true, the beautiful, and the good is nearer to God than the man of deeds. The forgetting of this was the tragical in the life of Jesus. The moment Jesus entered the battle with evil and sought to reclaim souls for the kingdom of God, Renan's understanding and sympathy ceased. Was Jesus doubtless possessed of "captivating beauty," Paul, on the other hand, was a Jew of hideous appearance, barbarous in speech, and clumsy in thought. He was the first Protestant, the father of a horrible theology which taught predestined damnation. On the day when Paul wrote his first letter, the decadence of Christianity began. The scientific value of the later volumes of the Origines du christianisme was higher, since the pen of Renan was less swayed by personal sympathy or antipathy. The Vie de Jésus was a decisive factor in its author's career. After delivering his inaugural address at the Collège de France on Feb. 21, 1862, he was suspended; though the agitation did not rest until, on June 11, 1864, Napoleon authorized his recall. An honorable position in the national library was declined that he might devote himself to his studies, but in 1871 he was restored to his professorship, and in 1879 became a member of the Academy. From 1884 to his death he was administrator of the Collège de France.
The life of Renan was essentially twofold; he was, on the one hand, the serious and accurate scholar, on the other, a wit and a dillettante. Fortunately he always valued his scientific activity more highly than his philosophy, and laid far more stress on such contributions as his History of the People of Israel and his labors on the Corpus inscriptionum Semiticarum than on his loose and sprightly philosophical writings, the pyrotechnic of which enraptured all Europe. Nevertheless his less worthy activity is that by which he has become best known both to his contemporaries and to posterity. More and more, as his early ideals proved impracticable, Renan lost his intellectual bearings, ending in an abysmal skepticism which clothed itself in jest and frivolity. The universe was to him a bad joke and a merry life was its best commentary: such was the quintessence of his philosophy. Like Voltaire, Renan was willing to be "the god of fools," and, unfortunately, did not feel himself above the boldest blasphemy. For a skepticism of this type moral standards could no longer exist, and religion and ethics were resolved into mere esthetic sensations. Religion as he represented it-an ineradicable longing of the human soul-was the esthetic and sensationalistic impulse toward the infinite, whether expressed in the renunciations of great ascetics or in the mystical effusions of lovely Magdalens. What is beautiful is good; what pleases is beautiful. Yet with all this mad philosophy, Renan's personal life was irreproachable.
Other works of Renan, which are of linguistic and historical value, some of which have run through repeated editions and been translated into many languages, are as follows: Histoire générale et système comparé des langues sémitiques (Paris, 1855); Études d'histoire religieuse (1857; Eng. transl., Studies in Religious History, London, 1863, another 1893); De l'origine du langage (1858); Le Livre de Job traduit (1858; Eng. transl., London, 1889); Essais de morale et de critique (1859); Le Cantique des cantiques (1860; Eng. transl., London, 1864); L'Averroes et l'averroisme (1860); Histoire des origines du christianisme (8 vols., La vie de Jésus, 1863, Les Apôtres, 1866, S. Paul, 1869, L'Antechrist, 1873, Les Évangiles, 1877, L'Église chrétienne, 1879, Marc-Aurèle, 1882, Index général, 1883; Eng. transl. of all except the last volume, London, 1864-99, with numerous translations of his "Life of Jesus" of other dates); Mission de Phénicie (1865-74); Observations épigraphiques (1867); Nouvelles observations d'épigraphie hebraique (1867); La Réforme intellectuelle et morale (1871); Dialogues et fragments philosophiques (1876; Eng. transl., Philosophic Dialogues, 1883); Mélanges d'histoire et de voyages (1878); Conférences d'Angleterre (1880; Eng. transl., Influences of the Institutions of Rome on Christianity, 1880); L'Ecclésiaste (1882); Souvenirs d'enfance et de jeunesse (1883; Eng. transl., Recollections of my Youth, 1883); Nouvelles études d'histoire religieuse (1884; Eng. transl., Studies in Religious History, 1886); Discours et conférences (1887); Histoire du peuple d'Israël (5 vols., 1887-1893; Eng. transl., History of the People of Israel, 1888-1891); Lettres intimes d'Ernest Renan et d'Henriette Renan (1896; Eng. transl., Brother and Sister. A Memoir [of Henriette, by Ernest] and the Letters of Ernest and Henriette Renan, 1896); Étude sur la politique religieuse du règne de Philippe le Bel (1899); Lettres du séminaire, 1838-46 (1901); and Mélanges religieux et historiques (1904).