A French author, philologist, archeologist, and founder of comparative religion, Ernest Renan (1823-1892) influenced European thought in the second half of the 19th century through his numerous writings.
Ernest Renan grew up in the mystical, Catholic French province of Brittany, where Celtic myths combined with his mother's deeply experienced Catholicism led this sensitive child to believe he was destined for the priesthood. He was educated at the ecclesiastical college at Tréguier, graduating in 1838, and then went to Paris, where he carried on the usual theological studies at St-Nicolas-du-Chardonnet and at St-Sulpice. In his Recollections of Childhood and Youth (1883) he recounted the spiritual crisis he went through as his growing interest in scientific studies of the Bible eventually made orthodoxy unacceptable; he was soon won over to the new "religion of science," a conversion fostered by his friendship with the chemist P. E. M. Berthelot.
Renan abandoned the seminary and earned his doctorate in philosophy. At this time (1848) he wrote The Future of Science but did not publish it till 1890. In this work he affirmed a faith in the wonders to be brought forth by a science not yet realized, but which he was sure would come.
Archaeological expeditions to the Near East and further studies in Semitics led Renan to a concept of religious studies which would later be known as comparative religion. His was an anthropomorphic view, first publicized in his Life of Jesus (1863), in which he portrayed Christ as a historical phenomenon with historical roots and needing a rational, nonmystical explanation. With his characteristic suppleness of intellect, this deeply pious agnostic wrote a profoundly irreligious work which lost him his professorship in the dominantly Catholic atmosphere of the Second Empire in France.
The Life of Jesus was the opening volume of Renan's History of the Origins of Christianity (1863-1883), his most influential work. His fundamental thesis was that all religions are true and good, for all embody man's noblest aspirations: he invited each man to phrase these truths in his own way. For many, a reading of this work made religion for the first time living truth; for others, it made religious conviction impossible.
The defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871 was for Renan, as for many Frenchmen, a deeply disillusioning experience. If Germany, which he revered, could do this to France, which he loved, where did goodness, beauty, or truth lie? He became profoundly skeptical, but with painful honesty he refused to deny what seemed to lie before him, averring instead that "the truth is perhaps sad." He remained sympathetic to Christianity, perhaps expressing it most movingly in his Prayer on the Acropolis of Athens (1876), in which he reaffirmed his abiding faith in the Greek life of the mind but confessed that his was inevitably a larger world, with sorrows unknown to the goddess Athena; hence he could never be a true son of Greece, any more than any other modern.
Further Reading on Ernest Renan
Little has been written in English about Renan. Two of the best studies are by Richard M. Chadbourne: Ernest Renan as an Essayist (1957) and Ernest Renan (1968).
Additional Biography Sources
Mercury, Francis, Renan, Paris: O. Orban, 1990.