ERNEST RENAN HIS LIFE, AND HIS LIFE OF JESUS
The northwest province of France is Brittany, and the northwest department of Brittany is Finistere. Next east of Finistere is the department of C6tes-duNord. Into the northernmost part of C6tes-du-Nord there runs a narrow tongue of the sea, and at the southern extremity of this little bay is situated the ancient cathedral town of Treguier. The bishopric passed away with the Revolution, but there remained a conglomeration of monastic edifices which served for the establishment of an ecclesiastical college. Cut off from all trade and industry, Treguier became a town of priests and a nursery of Catholic learning.
It was here that Ernest Renan was born in the year 1823, and, until his death at the age of sixty-nine, he bore the marks of his birthplace and of his early surroundings. He was of a yielding and even effeminate nature; in his childhood he preferred the society of girls, for boys called him "Mademoiselle" and would not play with him. His chief pleasures were those of the imagination; he was a natural dreamer; he spent hours in the nave of the cathedral, gazing upward at the airy lightness of its arches, or outside the structure, absorbed in contemplation of its soaring spire. He had much reverence for God as an object of vague and sensuous aspiration, though the thought of God as a God
of truth and holiness seems never to have occurred to him. Everything beautiful and artistic found ready access to his mind; for the moral he had no eye or ear. In this respect he was like Goethe. Perhaps, like Goethe, he owed his aesthetic bent to his story-telling mother; though in the great German gayety and fancy sometimes gave place to a sense of the sublime, which was never seen in Ernest Renan. Neither one, however, got beyond the worship of Beauty, and Renan's prayer to Athene on the Acropolis of Athens vividly reminds us of Goethe's apotheosis of Helen of Greece. Both of them thought a return to paganism to be the only way of salvation.
In his later days the brilliant Frenchman contributed to the "Revue Des Deux Mondes" a series of articles entitled "Recollections of My Youth." He tells us in his introduction that they must not be taken too seriously; like Goethe's "Wahrheit und Dichtung" in which truth is mingled continually with poetry, they present to us ideal pictures rather than photographs of real life. We may be sure, however, that the author does not give too dark a view of his own character or of the incidents of his personal history. They furnish us material for a most interesting psychological study.But they do more than this. They enable us to correct a false impression with regard to the real grounds of Renan's desertion of the Roman Church and his subsequent opposition to the accepted doctrines of Christianity. The man and his beliefs are in this case so inseparable that a careful review of his "Recollections" will yield us much of practical as well as theoretic instruction.
When the idealistic and critical young Renan was put to school in mediaeval Tr^guier, it was like planting an oak in a flower-pot; there was certain to come a time of expansion and the growing tree was sure to burst the barriers that kept it in. The honest priests who taught him knew nothing of the nineteenth century; they imparted the knowledge of Latin by the hardest and most old-fashioned of methods; to them submission and devotion were the only virtues and an ecclesiastical ambition the only ambition that they could either permit or comprehend. The place was enveloped in an atmosphere of mythology. Miracles were not unfrequent. Upon the eve of the festival of St. Yves, Renan tells us,
The people assembled in the church, and on the stroke of midnight the saint stretched out his arms to bless the kneeling congregation. But, if among them all there was one doubting soul who raised his eyes to see if the miracle really did take place, the saint, taking just offense at such a suspicion, did not move, and, by the misconduct of this incredulous person, no benediction was given.
He was born with a disposition which he calls ** moral romanticism "; and, if we omit the word "moral," we may grant the correctness of his self-characterization. It is certain that for him morality was merely a matter of sentiment, and even his " Life of Jesus" finds in the Saviour of the world only the hero of a romance. But this taste for the ideal helped to make of him a most industrious student. As a natural consequence of his assiduity in study he was destined for the priesthood. The priests, his teachers, furnished his only pattern in in life; he aimed to become a professor in the College of Tr^guier. Commercial pursuits seemed mercenary DESCRIPTIONS OF HIS OWN GIFTS 335
and degrading; the priesthood offered every needed opportunity for scholarly growth and aesthetic culture; he chose, therefore, the clerical calling.
It was hardly a sacred calling. It does not appear that he ever had any sense of his own moral needs or of the moral needs of the world. No conviction of sin ever visited him. No thought of a world lost and needing redemption ever led him to the choice of his vocation. Instead of all this there was an overweening confidence in his own powers and virtues. He credits himself with "an extraordinary force of enthusiasm and intuition." He speaks of his "gentle disposition and studious habits," of his "silence and modesty," of his "unchangeable good temper, moral healthfulness, and well-balanced mind." St. Yves, he says, "endowed me with a spirit of content, which passeth riches, and a native good-humor, which has never left me." He had "an absolute inability to be resentful or to appear so." In youth,
The old-fashioned book which I used for making my examinations of conscience was innocence itself. There was only one sin which excited my curiosity and made me feel uneasy. I was afraid that I might have been guilty of it unawares. I mustered up courage, one day, to ask my confessor what was meant by the phrase: 'To be guilty of simony in the collation of benefices.' The good priest reassured me, and told me that I could not have committed that sin.
Unless we keep in mind his remark that "what one says of one's self is always poetical," it will be difficult to understand the long descriptions which he gives of his own gifts and graces. He prides himself, for example, on being superior to the desire for riches, free from all temptation to display, unvaryingly polite, and immaculately pure in life. His own accompanying confessions make it necessary to take these claims with some reserve. He acknowledges what he calls the "petty tyrannies" of his childhood. He perceives that the mocking spirit which possessed him needed to be curbed. Even his virtues at times seem to him to be the result of an easy-going nature rather than of settled principle:
My amiability, which is in many cases the result of indifference; my indulgency, which is sincere enough, and is due to the fact that I see clearly how unjust men are to one another; my conscientious habits, which afford me real pleasure; and my infinite capacity for enduring ennui, attributable perhaps to my having been so well inoculated by ennui during my youth that it has never taken since, are all to be explained by the circle in which I lived and the profound impressions which I received.
He claims to have lived a life far above the average, in large part because his natural gifts were so greatly improved by training:
"My masters," he says, "taught me logic, and their uncompromising arguments made my mind as trenchant as a blade of steel." "I should have succeeded in any variety of intellectual application." "I was better versed than any living Frenchman, with the exception of M. Le Hir, in the comparative theory of the Semitic languages." "I should have quitted the seminary without having studied Hebrew or theology. Physiology and the natural sciences would have absorbed me, and I do not hesitate to express my belief—so great was the ardor which these vital sciences excited in me—that, if I had cultivated them continuously, I should have arrived at several of the results achieved by Darwin, and partially foreseen by myself." "I am the only man of my time who has understood the characters of Jesus and of Francis of Assisi."
These utterances of Renan belong to his later life, but they show very plainly that humility was no part of his mental outfit.
M. Dupanloup, who had elicited from Talleyrand a dying confession of faith and who afterward became Bishop of Orleans and a Life Senator, was in Renan's youth the director of a theological school in Paris. He was on the watch for boys of talent, and his scouts penetrated the provinces. It was reported to him that in Treguier a promising pupil was to be found, and Renan was bidden to come to the metropolis. He had even at the age of fifteen distinguished himself by the remarkable gracefulness of his writing. Art in the arrangement of words and ideas was a gift of nature to him; this secured his election in 1878 as Member of the French Academy; a pellucid and piquant style— a sort of poetry in prose—is his greatest legacy to posterity.
Praise had already roused the boy's ambition, when a new world opened before him. Imagine the little student from the country, sensitive and shy, but alert to receive every new impression, coming from the homely monastic rule of his unworldly priests to a Parisian seminary, where religion was perfumed and rose-colored, a matter of tapers and flower-pots, of ribbons and musk, yet where the searching light of modern history and science was permitted to some extent to shine in upon the cloudy glories of ecclesiastical tradition and miracle. Is it surprising that a religion of sentiment and superstition gradually gave way before a growing knowledge of nature, and that one who had
never sounded the depths of his own heart and had
never found Christ an anchor to his soul should have been swept from his moorings by literary ambition and materialistic philosophy?
Pere Hardouin observed that he had not got up at four o'clock every morning for forty years to think as all the world thought. Renan was a laborious student and he too began to think for himself. One of his tutors read to the boys certain extracts from modern books.
"One of these books," he says, "produced a singular effect upon me. Whenever he began to read from it I was incapable of taking a single note, my whole being seeming to thrill with intoxicating harmony. The book was Michelet's 'Histoire de France,' the passages which so affected me being in the fifth and sixth volumes. Thus the modern age penetrated into me as through all the fissures of a cracked cement . . It was a great surprise to me when I found that there was such a person as a serious and learned layman. I discovered that antiquity and the Church are not everything in this world, and especially that contemporary literature was worthy of attention. I ceased to look upon the death of Louis XIV. as marking the end of the world. I became imbued with ideas and sentiments which had no expression in antiquity or in the seventeenth century."
He became acquainted not only with modern literature but with the arguments of the skeptics. These often came to him through the weak replies of his professors. He remembered the arguments after he had forgotten the replies.
In proportion as the foundations of my religious faith had been shaken by finding the same names applied to things so different, so did my mind greedily swallow the new beverage prepared for it. The world broke in upon me. Despite the claim to be a refuge to which the stir of the outside world never penetrated, St Nicholas was at this time the most brilliant and worldly
house in Paris. The atmosphere of Paris—minus, let me add, its corruptions—penetrated my door and window. . . My old Brittany priests knew much more Latin and mathematics than my new masters, but they lived in the catacombs, bereft of light and air. Here the atmosphere of the age had free course. In our walks to Gentilly of an evening we engaged in endless discussions. I could never sleep of a night after that; my head was full of Hugo and Lamartine. I understood what glory was, after having vaguely expected to find it in the roof of the chapel at Treguier. In the course of a short time a very great revelation was borne in upon me. The words talent, brilliancy, and reputation conveyed a meaning to me. The modest ideal which my teachers had inculcated faded away; I had embarked upon a sea agitated by all the storms and currents of the age. These currents and gales were bound to drive my vessel toward a coast where my former friends would tremble to see me land.
While his fellow-students could not settle down to study the divinity of the schools, Renan informs us that he became "as fond of it as a monkey is of nuts."
"Theology and the study of the Bible," he says, "absorbed my whole time, and furnished me with the true reasons for believing in Christianity and for not adhering to it For four years a terrible struggle went on within me, until at last the phrase, which I had long put away from me as a temptation of the devil, 'It is not true,' would not be denied."
If he had cast off only the superstitions of ecclesiasticism, while he held fast the central truths of Christianity, we could not have blamed him. Unhappily, the Celt and the Gascon were mixed in his blood. Impulse and audacity drove him to the opposite extreme. As he continued his studies, he found himself diverging farther and farther from the orthodox faith. At the seminaries of Issy and St. Sulpice, where his work was less literary and more theological, he came first to doubt and then lo abandon one belief after another to which he had previously adhered, until one of his instructors startled him with the passionate exclamation: "You are not a Christian!"
Seven years of study had made him an unbeliever. It was impossible for him longer to think of becoming a priest. And yet to give up the priesthood was to resign all his previous hopes of a comfortable livelihood, to cast himself upon an unfriendly world, to grieve his mother's heart. For some time he was inclined to compromise by doing secular work in an ecclesiastical institution. Fortunately he was saved from this by the advice of his sister, Henriette Renan, who offered her slender savings as a governess to make his first year independent. He had written to her of the demands of his instructors and of their unwillingness to permit any deviation from the received standards. "They tell me," he says, "that I must accept the whole thing— that, unless I do, I am no Catholic." She begs him to break absolutely with the church, and to take the twelve hundred francs she sends for his support. "Console yourself, Ernest," she writes, "by considering what would be the condition of an upright man bound to teach things his reason did not accept. . . Be guilty of no weakness, no imprudent concession. . . It would be a crime."
A book entitled "Brother and Sister," recently published, consists of Ernest's Memoir of Henriette and of the letters that passed between the two at this critical period of his life. In one of these letters she says most truly: "I have poured my whole existence, dear
Ernest, into yours." The devotion with which she followed his fortunes, sacrificed her time and strength in copying his manuscripts and in keeping his house, supplemented his imperfect taste and vacillating will by her more delicate sensibility and more masculine judgment, is paralleled only in the cases of Dorothy and William Wordsworth, and of Charles and Mary Lamb. When, after years of celibacy, her brother married the niece of Ary Scheffer the painter, Henriette almost died of grief, yet ended by loving her brother's wife as she loved her brother. And the one passage in all his writings which has most of pathos and least of the melodramatic is the dedication of his " Life of Jesus" to the sister who died at his side in Syria when he himself was a victim to the same fever. That passage so well illustrates the airy grace and fascination of his style, that I venture to quote it:
To the pure spirit of my sister Henriette, who died at Byblus, September 24th, 1861: Do you remember, from your rest in the bosom of God, those long days at Ghazir, where, alone with you, I wrote these pages, inspired by the scenes we had just traversed? Silent by my side, you read every leaf, and copied it as soon as written, while the sea, the villages, the ravines, the mountains, were spread out at our feet When the overwhelming light of the sun had given place to the innumerable array of the stars, your fine and delicate questions, your discreet doubts, brought me back to the sublime object of our common thoughts. One day you told me that you should love this book, first, because it had been written with you, and also, because it pleased you. If sometimes you feared for it the narrow judgments of the frivolous man, you were always persuaded that spirits truly religious would be pleased with it In the midst of these sweet meditations Death struck us both with his wing; the sleep of fever seized us both at the same hour; I awoke alone! . . You sleep now in the land of Adonis, near the holy Byblus and the sacred waters where the women of the ancient mysteries came to mingle their tears. Reveal to me, O my good genius, to me whom you loved, those truths which master Death, prevent us from fearing, and make us almost love it!
Renan congratulated himself that he had been loved at least by four women—his mother, his sister, his wife, and his daughter. But he was much more devoted to his studies than he was to them, and for weeks together he was so absorbed in literary work that he could neither answer their letters nor give to them an hour of his time. He had abandoned the church, but he gave his days and his nights to the study of the Semitic languages. He printed a number of essays which attracted attention. He was appointed by the third Napoleon the Director of a Commission for the exploration of ancient Phoenicia. This gave him the opportunity of composing the first draft of his " Life of Jesus" under fresh impressions of the climate and soil of Palestine. In the Holy Land, he says, " before my eyes I had a fifth Gospel, torn yet legible," and his pictures of Syrian scenery and customs, in spite of his own disbelief, have furnished new evidence for the truth of the Scripture narrative. On his return from this expedition he was called to the chair of Hebrew in the College de France, but, as he denied the divinity of Christ, he incurred the opposition of the clerical party and in 1864 was forced to resign his professorship. Six years after, however, he was reappointed, and he held his position until he died in 1892. He aimed to be a scientific investigator, lecturer, and author, in the field of biblical language and literature. Science to him was antithetical to theology. He desired
to interpret the facts of religion from the point of view of mere nature. His "Life of Jesus" was the first book in the series entitled "The Origins of Christianity," which includes further "The Apostles," "St. Paul and his Mission," "The Antichrist," "The Gospels and the Second Christian Generation," "The Christian Church," and "Marcus Aurelius and the End of the Ancient World." The natural introduction to the series is a separate work, "The History of the People of Israel."
Whether the writings of Renan are truly scientific we shall find reason to doubt. In his examination of Hebrew history and literature he wished to divest himself of prepossessions. But in reality he only substituted one prepossession for another. Instead of keeping his mind open to evidence in favor of the supernatural and miraculous, he took for granted at the start that the supernatural and miraculous were incredible and impossible. Let us listen to some of his utterances:
There is no special supernatural or momentary revelation . . . no appreciable trace of any free-will superior to that of man—this is the immovable anchor from which I have never shifted since the first months of 1846. . . According to my philosophy, which regards the world in its entirety as full of a divine afHation, there is no place for individual will in the government of the universe. Individual Providence has never been proved by any unmistakable fact. . . If miracles and the inspiration of certain books are realities, my method is detestable. If miracles and the inspiration of certain books are beliefs without reality, my method is a good one. But the question of the supernatural is decided for us with perfect certainty by the single consideration that there is no room for believing in a thing of which the world offers no experimental trace.
This is only the argument of Hume that things are impossible because improbable. "The ultimate standard," says Hume, "by which we determine all disputes that arise is always derived from experience and observation." A miracle is so contradictory of all human experience that it is more reasonable to believe any amount of testimony to be false than to believe a miracle to be true. But there is a radical defect in this reasoning. It begs the question, by making our own personal experience the measure of all human experience. The same principle would make the proof of any absolutely new fact impossible. The German philosopher declared that he would not believe a miracle though he saw one with his own eyes. Whately, in his "Historic Doubts Relative to Napoleon Buonaparte," showed that the same rule would require us to deny the existence of the great Frenchman, for Napoleon's conquests were contrary to all experience, and civilized nations had never before been so subdued. And Dr. Lyman Abbott has recently remarked that
If the Old Testament told the story of a naval engagement between the Jewish people and a pagan people in which all the ships of the pagan people were destroyed, and yet not a single man was killed among the Jews, all the skeptics would have scorned the narrative. Every one now believes it, except those who live in Spain.
Notice here that it is not the method of the miracle which Renan takes exception to, but rather the existence of any divine free-will competent to work it. We are having every day, in the telegraph and the telephone, illustrations of a power over nature which in the Middle Ages would have brought the operator to the stake, and yet no law of nature is violated or suspended when we communicate instantaneously with London or with Hong
Kong. It is reasonable to suppose that "in the hands of perfect and spiritual man," as Washington Gladden remarks, "the forces of nature are pliant and tractable as they are not in ours. The resurrection of Christ is only a sign of tbe superiority of the life of the perfect spirit over external conditions. It may be perfectly in accordance with nature." If man at his best can work what seem wonders to the uninitiated, surely God can do greater wonders, for he too has free-will, and he is present in all his universe to fulfill the moral purpose with which he made it. If man's will can act directly upon matter in his own physical organism, God's will can work immediately upon the system which he has created and which he sustains. In other words, if there is a God, and if he is a personal being, miracles are possible. As another has said: "A miracle is not a sudden blow struck in the face of nature, but a use of nature, according to its inherent capacities, by higher powers." And can any one who considers man's continual intervention in the world of things doubt that he who made man can intervene also? If man signalizes his presence by breaking through all ordinary sequences and by doing unique things, shall we say that God must run forever in a rut and be forbidden to disclose his heart in incarnation or in resurrection?
As a condition of successful inquiry into matters of Hebrew history we demand therefore that the investigator be not handicapped by the a priori belief that events out of the established order are impossible, for such a belief precludes any honest weighing of the evidence in their favor. But, still further, we ask that the inquirer be a man of strong ethical nature. Even Goethe declared that loving sympathy is essential for productive criticism. Now the Hebrew documents as well as the Hebrew history are the great ethical treasures of the ages. Greece has given us beauty and art; Rome has given us organization and law; but Palestine has given us conscience and righteousness. He who would understand the Scriptures, or the life of the Jews, or the work of Christ, must know something of sin and holiness, must be a hater of all falsehood, must recognize a personal God of truth and righteousness. Only he who acknowledges such a God and sees the contrast between his own character and the purity of God, can possibly understand the reason for a supernatural revelation. He who has no God but the God of physical order will regard miracles as an impertinent intrusion upon that order. But he who yields to the testimony of conscience and regards God as a God of holiness will see that man's unholiness renders God's miraculous interposition most necessary to man and most becoming to God. Our view of miracles will therefore be determined by our belief in a moral, or in a non-moral God.
What, now, is the ethical equipment with which Ernest Renan began his work? A writer in " The Nation" sums up his characteristics by accusing him of "levity, frivolity, dilettanteism, intellectual epicureanism, absence of any deep morality." If a profound regard for truth is fundamental to all morality, Renan lacked one of the great essentials, for he was insincere. He had no faith in an objective truth or in the existence of a God of truth who punishes falsehood. Truth to him was a means to an end. For this reason he dealt in phrases, and believed with Talleyrand that the object of language
was in large part to conceal one's meaning. After listening to doctrine with which he totally disagreed, and which he was intending in his skillful way to combat, he always began with the disarming words: "Monsieur, vous avez mille fois raison!—Sir, you are right, a thousand times over!" But more extended quotation from his "Recollections" will make this defect more plain. There he says:
In my writings I have been outspoken to a degree. Not only have I never said anything which I do not think, but, what is much less frequent and far more difficult, I have said all I think. But in talking and in letter-writing I am at times singularly weak. I do not attach any importance to this, and, with the exception of the select few between whom and myself there is a bond of intellectual brotherhood, I say to people just what I think is likely to please them. In the society of fashionable people I am utterly lost I get into a muddle and flounder about, losing the thread of my ideas in some tissue of absurdity. With an inveterate habit of being over-polite, as priests generally are, I am too anxious to detect what the person I am talking with would like said to him. My attention, when I am conversing with any one, is engrossed in trying to guess at his ideas, and, from excess of deference, to anticipate him in the expression of them. This is based upon the supposition that very few men are so unconcerned as to their own ideas as not to be annoyed when one differs from them.
This absence of sincerity causes Renan no pain, for he writes later on:
All things considered, I should not, if I had to begin my life over again, with the right of making what erasures I liked, change anything. The defects of my nature and education have, by a sort of benevolent Providence, been so attenuated and reduced as to be of very little moment A certain apparent lack of frankness in my relations with them is forgiven me by my friends, who attribute it to my clerical education. I must admit that in the early part of my life 1 often told untruths, not in my own interest, but out of good nature and indifference, upon the mistaken idea which always induces me to take the view of the person with whom I may be conversing. My sister depicted to me in very vivid colors the drawbacks involved in acting like this, and I have given up doing so. I am not aware of having told a single untruth since 1851, with the exception, of course, of the harmless stories and polite fibs which all casuists permit, as also the literary evasions which, in the interests of a higher truth, must be used to make up a well-poised phrase, or to avoid a still greater misfortune, that of stabbing an author. Thus, for instance, a poet brings you some verses. You must say they are admirable; for, if you said less, it would be tantamount to describing them as worthless, and to inflicting a grievous insult upon a man who intended to show you a polite attention.
Was this politeness a real regard for others, or only a selfish way of saving trouble to himself? He has virtually answered the question in defining his views of friendship:
My friends may have well found it much more difficult to forgive me another defect, which consists in being rather slow, not to show them affection, but to render them assistance. One of the injunctions most impressed upon us at the seminary was to avoid "special friendships." Friendships of this kind were described as being a fraud upon the rest of the community. The rule has always remained indelibly impressed upon my mind. I have never given much encouragement to friendship. I have done little for my friends, and they have done little for me. One of the ideas which I have often to cope with is that friendship, as it is generally understood, is an injustice and a blunder, which only allows you to distinguish the good qualities of a single person, and blinds you to those of others who are perhaps more deserving of your sympathy. I fancy to myself at times, like my ancient masters, that friendship is a larceny committed at the expense of society at large, and that, in a more elevated world, friendship would disappear. . . While I have been very fond of my friends,
I have done very little for them. . . I have obliged hardly any one. . . My craving to be just has prevented me from being obliging. . . And yet I have done all the good I could.
Here is an insincere and loveless spirit, altogether unconscious of its moral obliquity. Renan's ethical tone shows a growing laxity. He comes to regard the indulgence of the passions as only a proper manifestation of one's nature. In his later days he regretted that he had not, when he was young, partaken more freely of the banquet of the senses. He recalls with amusement a time in his youth when he was perplexed by a passage in the life of some saintly person of the seventeenth century who compared women to firearms which wound from afar. He tells us that
The comparison between women and firearms made me very cautious, and not till age began to creep over me did I see that this also was vanity, and that the Preacher was right when he said: "Go thy way, eat thy bread joyfully . . . with the woman whom thou lovest." . . . The liberty in which so many giddy youths find themselves suddenly landed was in my case acquired very gradually; and I did not attain the degree of emancipation which so many Parisians reach without any effort of their own until I had gone through the German exegesis.
It required, indeed, a most liberal exegesis to find in Scripture the warrant for all manner of sins of sense, but Renan was equal to the task. Sin comes not only to be condoned, but to be admired. Listen once more:
A Paradise lost is always, for him who wills it so, a Paradise regained. Often as Adam must have mourned the loss of Eden, I fancy that if he lived, as we are told, nine hundred and thirty years after his fall, he must often have exclaimed : Felix culpa I . . . My whole life unfolded itself, as in a general confession, before my eyes. But the most singular thing was that in confessing my sins 1 got to like them, and my resolve to become classical eventually drove me into just the opposite direction. . . In Jesus' parable of the Prodigal Son he places morality upon its true footing, kindness of heart . . I consider that for the future the word moral will become improper and must be replaced by another. For many years, I substitute in preference the word asthetic. In looking upon an action, I ask whether it is beautiful or ugly, rather than whether it is good or bad. . . We must increase the sum of human happiness. We must speak no more of sin, of expiation, of redemption; we must speak to man of gayety, of goodness, of indulgence, of good humor, of resignation. As the hope of a future life goes on diminishing, we must accustom these transient beings to consider life as supportable; otherwise they will revolt Man can no longer be kept quiet except by happiness.
How far this Epicurean gospel could go is seen in other utterances. He had renounced a personal God and all external authority. No law was left but that of his own impulses. His maxim was: "Do what will please you."
Temperance societies are founded upon excellent intentions, but upon a misunderstanding. Instead of suppressing drunkenness for those who require it, would it not be better to make it gentle, amiable, accompanied by moral sentiments? There are so many men for whom the hour of drunkenness is, after the hour of love, the moment when they are at their best . . Why prevent an unfortunate from plunging for a moment into the ideal? . . . I cannot get it out of my head that perhaps the libertine is right after all, and practises the true philosophy of life. . . The time during which a man loves is the time of his fugitive life when he is at his best The immense sensation which he feels when he thus emerges in a manner from himself shows that he really comes in contact with the Infinite. Love, understood in a lofty manner, is thus a religious thing, or rather a part of religion. Is
it possible that this old remnant of relationship with nature could have been regarded by frivolity and folly as a shameful remainder of animalism? Is it possible that an aim so holy as that of continuing the species could have been attached to a culpable or ridiculous act? We attribute to the Eternal, by this supposition, a grotesque intention. . . Nature does not in the least encourage men to be chaste.
Renan became a writer of plays, and of plays so pronounced in their suggestion of evil that even the Parisian public was scandalized by them. As he was complimenting a French actress behind the scenes, a wit who looked on remarked that he was spending upon her what he had made out of the " Life of Jesus." These plays seem to have the distinct purpose to consecrate illicit passion by investing it with a glamour of religion, or else to drag religion down to the level of a merely fleshly appetite. In the preface to the "Abbesse de Jouarre," Renan justifies himself by asserting that "in the countries of naYve faith, like Brittany, the poor girl who abandons herself, at the moment of supreme joy makes the sign of the cross." And the crisis of this same play is reached when a young man who is to be led out next morning to execution persuades the Abbess of the Convent to yield herself to his embraces, upon the plea that Jesus sacrificed everything for love, and therefore she may entrust her honor to himself and to God.
The man who began his public life with the declaration that the one object in life is the development of the mind, and who in the interest of perfect freedom threw off all authority, seems in his later years to have come dangerously near to committing the sin against the Holy Ghost. With an irreverence and flippancy which even its wit does not prevent from being blasphemous, he attributes evil to God, and the only excuse we can offer is that evil in his eyes had come to seem a form of good.
We owe virtue to the Eternal, but we have the right to join to it, as a personal retort, irony. We play the farce that has been played to us. We wish the Eternal to feel that, if we have been deceived [in thinking ourselves free and responsible beings] we agree to it willingly and knowingly. We are resigned to lose the interest of our virtuous investments ; but we would not like to be exposed to the ridicule of seeming to have counted much upon it . . God knows 1 was simple-minded and pure. . . He has betrayed me.
Renan had a pious correspondent who wrote to him regularly every three months simply these words: "There is a hell!" He replies:
This person does not frighten me as much as he believes. I should like to be sure that there is a hell. For I prefer the hypothesis of hell to that of nothingness. Many theologians think that for the damned it is better to be than not to be, and that these unfortunates are perhaps accessible to many a good thought As for myself, I imagine that if the Eternal, in his severity, should send me first to that dreadful place, I should succeed in getting out of it I would send up to my Creator a supplication that would make him smile. The reasonings which I would make in order to prove to him that it is by his fault that I am damned would be so subtle that he would have some difficulty in answering me. Perhaps he would finally admit me into his holy Paradise, which must be very tedious. . . If there is such a place as hell, I do not think I have done anything which would consign me to it A short stay in Purgatory would perhaps be just, and I would take the chance of this, as there would be a Paradise afterwards, and there would be plenty of charitable per
sons to secure indulgence, by which my sojourn would be shortened.
A recent writer suggests the probable reasons for Renan's preference of purgatory:
There you meet the amiable sinners—those who have walked, as he does himself, on the tight-rope between virtue and vice, between corruption and incorruption—those who have led pendulous lives. He represents to himself this purgatory as an immense park, under a polar light, full of dark shrubberies "where are purified the loves begun on earth. What delicious novels are there finished! How little people must be in a hurry to leave it, especially for a monotonous Paradise !''
When we read such lines, we ask ourselves: Is the author serious? What does he really mean? Is he laughing more at himself than at us? I answer: It is the mocking of the fool who says in his heart, "There is no God," and who yet is compelled by the deep necessities of his nature to keep his courage up by pretending that he has no fear.
His effort was to put away the thought of God and of immortality. But now and then instincts that are stronger than his logic assert themselves. His soul is a palimpsest which has had its original writing erased. But the ink has penetrated the whole thickness of the parchment and the chemistry of suffering is able to revive it. In one place we read:
A vast stream called Oblivion hurries us downward toward a nameless abyss. Thou art the only true God, O Abyss. The tears of all nations are true tears; the dreams of all wise men comprise a parcel of truth ; all things here below are mere symbols and dreams. The gods pass away like men ; and it would not be well for them to be eternal. The faith which we have felt
should never be a chain, and our obligations to it are fully discharged when we have carefully enveloped it in the purple shroud within the folds of which slumber the gods that are dead.
This means simply that there is no personal and living God, and that, to use his own language, "conscious existence is but a passing communion with the universe, designed to carry us more or less close to the divine essence "—the divine essence being simply the unconscious and involuntary principle at the root of all things, which reaches intelligence only in man. Yet the last paragraphs of his "Recollections" seem to invest this principle with some of the attributes of personality:
I have to thank some one—I do not exactly know whom. . . The infinite goodness which I have experienced in this world inspires me with the conviction that eternity is pervaded by a goodness not less infinite, in which I repose unlimited trust All that I have now to ask of the good genius which has so often guided, advised, and consoled me is a calm and sudden death at my appointed hour, be it near or distant The Stoics maintained that one might have led a happy life even in the belly of the bull of Phalaris. This is going too far. Suffering degrades, humiliates, and leads to blasphemy. The only acceptable death is-the noble death, which is not a pathological incident but a premeditated and precious end before the Everlasting. Death upon the battlefield is the grandest of all ; but there are others which are illustrious. If at times I may have conceived the wish to be a senator, it is because I fancy that this function will, within some not distant interval, afford fine opportunities of being knocked on the head or shot—forms of death which are very preferable to a long illness, which kills you by inches and demolishes you bit by bit God's will be done! I have little chance of adding to my store of knowledge; I have a pretty accurate idea of the amount of truth which the human mind can, in the present stage of its development, discern. I should be very grieved to go through one
of those periods of enfeeblement during which the man once endowed with strength and virtue is but the shadow and ruin of his former self, and often, to the delight of the ignorant, sets himself to demolish the life which he had so laboriously constructed. Such an old age is the worst gift which the gods can give to man. If such a fate be in store for me, I hasten to protest beforehand against the weaknesses which a softened brain might lead me to say or sign. It is the Renan, sane in body and in mind, as I am now—not the Renan half destroyed by death and no longer himself, as I shall be if my decomposition is gradual—whom I wish to be believed and listened to. I disavow the blasphemies to which in my last hour I might give way against the Almighty. The existence which was given me without my having asked for it has been a beneficent one for me. Were it offered to me, I would gladly accept it over again. The age in which I have lived will not probably count as the greatest, but it will doubtless be regarded as the most amusing. Unless my closing years have some very cruel trials in store, I shall have, in bidding farewell to life, to thank the cause of all good for the delightful excursion through reality which I have been enabled to make.
And this is the man who undertook to write the "Life of Jesus." Renan has well said that "our ideal of a person changes with ourselves." His own life explains his conclusions about Christ. I do not asseverate that Renan was personally or conspicuously immoral. I have little evidence with regard to that matter other than the extracts which I have read from his own writings. Those who heard him lecture in his later days received a two-fold impression. On the one hand they had before them one who seemed to carry a weight of four hundred pounds with a stature of only five feet. From the mouth of this creature of almost porcine grossness, on the other hand, proceeded such a flow of brilliant and persuasive discourse as might have come from Ulysses if Circe had only succeeded in turning him into one of her swine. All I can say with certainty is that if Renan was not outwardly immoral, the spirit of immorality was in him, and nothing immoral, so long as it wore the air of refinement, would have greatly offended him. And his "Life of Jesus" betrays at least a moral indifferentism, which constitutes an absolute bar to the right understanding of the character and the life of him whom he seeks to portray.
Renan attributes tne origin of Christianity to the predominance in Palestine of a constitutional susceptibility to mystic excitements. Christ is to him the incarnation of sympathy and tears, a being of tender impulses and passionate ardors, whose native genius it was to play upon the hearts of men. Truth or falsehood made little difference to him; anything that would comfort the poor, or touch the finer feelings of humanity, he availed himself of; ecstasies, visions, melting moods, these were the secrets of his power. Religion is a beneficent superstition, a sweet delusion,— excellent as a balm and solace for the ignorant crowd, who never could be philosophers if they tried. And so the gospel river, as one has said, is traced back to a fountain of weeping men and women whose brains had oozed out at their eyes, and the perfection of spirituality is made to be a sort of maudlin monasticism.
We see the tendencies of a sentimental conception of Christianity such as prevails in the Roman Catholic countries of Europe. Renan was brought up to look upon religion as a matter of sensuous devotion quite disconnected from reason or practical life, and his writings, which have so justly alarmed the authorities of the
church, are only the plain expression of the inner spirit of Romanism. And this makes it so difficult for Roman Catholics to answer him,—he simply shows them their own faces as in a mirror. The religion that scouts the Bible and makes no provision for the advance of its adherents in knowledge, that makes everything of blind obedience and nothing of private judgment, that exalts emotion and sentiment above morality of life, such a religion must be prepared to see its men of intellect, like M. Renan, excusing themselves from a belief in even its fundamental doctrines, and treating its most solemn facts as a happy device for the satisfaction of superstitious aspirations and fears and for the comfort of the weak-minded and ignorant. Make religion a matter of sentiment alone and you declare its perpetual divorce from science and render it worthy only of the courteous pity of the learned. Christian love will come to seem a wholly unintellectual and unreasoning emotion, quite beneath the dignity of a man of thought.
How different from all this the strong and holy love of Christ, which would save men only by bringing them to the truth, and which claims men's imitation only because, without love for God and for the soul, a man is without truth. How inexplicable from this view the fact that a pure Christianity has everywhere quickened the intellect of the nations, and that every revival of it, as at the Reformation, has been followed by mighty forward leaps of civilization. Was Paul a man carried away by mystic dreams and irrational enthusiasms? Let the keen dialectic skill of his Epistles and his profound philosophic grasp of the great matters of revelation answer. Has the Christian Church been a company of puling sentimentalists? Let the heroic deaths for the truth suffered by the martyrs witness. Nay, he must have a low idea of his kind, and a yet lower idea of the God who made them, who can believe that the noblest spirits of the race have risen to greatness by abnegating will and reason, and have gained influence over all ages by resigning themselves to semi-idiocy.
And if the later triumphs of Christianity are inexplicable upon the theory of Renan, how can he explain its founding? The sweet swain of Galilee, beloved by women for his beauty, fascinating the unlettered crowds by his gentle speech and his poetic ideals, giving comfort to the sorrowing and hope to the poor, credited with supernatural power which at first he thinks it not worth while to deny and finally gratifies the multitude by pretending to exercise, roused by opposition to polemics and invective until the delightful young rabbi becomes a gloomy giant, an intractable fanatic, a fierce, revolutionist, whose denunciation of the powers that be brings him to the cross,—what is there in him to account for the moral wonder which we call Christianity and the beginnings of its empire in the world? Neither delicious pastorals like those of Jesus' first period, nor apocalyptic fevers like those of his second period, according to Renan's gospel, furnish any rational explanation of the origin of that mighty movement which has swept through the earth and has revolutionized the faith of mankind.
Let us thank Renan for certain concessions. "On the whole," he says, "I admit the four canonical Gospels as documents of good faith." He grants that all four belong to the century following the death of Jesus.
He concedes that Jesus accepted the title "Son of David," and connected all reform of the world with his own person.
"The highest consciousness of God that has existed in the bosom of humanity," says Renan, "is that of Jesus. . . The title 'Son of man' expressed his rank as judge; 'Son of God' his participation in the plans and power of the Supreme Being. This power is unlimited. No one knoweth the Father but himself. He forgives sins; he is superior to David, to Abraham, to Solomon, to the prophets. We do not deny that in these affirmations is the germ of the doctrine which subsequently made him a divine hypostasis and identified him with the Word."
And this proposing of himself as the great object of faith, and this attributing to himself of a share in the counsels and the glory of the Godhead, belong, even by the confession of Renan, to the first period of Jesus' ministry, when he was nearest to nature and to God. This is the doctrine that conquered the world, and yet Renan regards it as the illusion of a dreamer.
Let us imagine for a moment that it is true, that Jesus was what he professed to be, the Judge of all, able to forgive, endued with divine power, one with God, the Son of God. Then the advent of divine truth and power upon earth may well have involved a supernatural conception. We do not need to imagine any deception in Jesus' miracles. His resurrection was no illusion of overwrought sensibility. Christianity is not only the central fact of history, but the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ are expressions of the heart of God for which all history is but the incident and the condition. In other words, the universe is moral to the core, and the redemption of humanity by the Son of God is the very secret of it. He who said "Let your yea be yea, and your nay nay" could not have used deception while professing to restore the moral law, for he was not the founder of Jesuitism but of Christianity.
The moment we take this heliocentric, this Christocentric position, all details fall into order. How superficial, fantastic, and even impious, seem these utterances of Renan:
His beauty, pure and attractive, calmed the diseased organization of Mary of Magdala ; and, in many cases, is not the contact of a beautiful person worth all the resources of pharmacy? . . In the sepulchre, where Lazarus, comfortably established, awaited his resurrection, there were beautiful chambers where one might feel himself quite at home. . . O divine power of love! sacred moments, in which the passion of one whose senses were deceived gives us a resuscitated God!
In all this Renan denies to Jesus "sincerity with himself," and attributes to him "innocent artifice" and the toleration of pious fraud. The founder of the religion of truth, love, and righteousness, was an impostor.
These are the straits to which one is reduced who would account for Christianity upon purely naturalistic principles. Truth is made to come from falsehood, morality from immorality, righteousness from unrighteousness. He involves himself in the self-contradiction of denying the supernatural yet giving some credit to the witnesses. How plain it is that " the eye," as Cicero says, "sees only that which it brings with it the power of seeing." Renan sees in Christ only a volatile, plausible, imaginative phrase-maker, and then a soured and bitter member of the French Academy, like himself. Pressense" has brought out the resulting problem : "Jesus, it A FIRST LESSON
seems, invented nothing, but believed in God as all women and children do. How then did he found a religion? Ah, he was so charming! The peasant saw in the Venus of Milo only a piece of broken stone. * The exquisite taste of a Goethe,' says Renan, 'would find full scope on such a subject' as the last prayer of Christ. Not so; exquisite taste would make the greatest blunders. A childlike heart, a heart broken on account of sin, not infatuated in its self-conceit, is what appropriates this divine beauty which genius fails to discover, because love alone penetrates love, and like only comprehends like."
There is a lesson from Renan's life and work which not Roman Catholics alone, but all evangelical bodies as well, should learn. It is, that overstatement in religious doctrine is as pernicious as understatement. The treating of the Apocrypha of the Old Testament and the ecclesiastical miracles of later days as parts of the Christian faith had something to do with Renan's revulsion from orthodoxy. Mrs. Ward's recent novel, "Helbeck of Bannisdale" shows how grievous a burden modern Romanism ties about men's necks in its scapularies and relics, its auricular confession and its papal infallibility. Let us make sure that we do not, by our extra-scriptural theories of inspiration, of sin, and of the atonement, bind men with other burdens which Christ has never meant them to bear. If Renan had had a humble and contrite heart, and a willingness to bow his neck to the yoke of truth and righteousness, he would have been led to Christ and to salvation. Yet woe to those by whom the offense came,—the teachers who foisted tradition and human interpretation upon the word of God—and so gave occasion for his stumbling.
But, after all, the chief lesson from his story is this: Humility and acknowledgment of personal sinfulness are essential conditions of the attainment of spiritual truth. This deploring of the presence and power of evil in the soul is wanting in Renan. Mr. Gladstone, in the "Nineteenth Century," has quoted him as saying that he had "suppressed the consciousness of sin." And so, failing to sound the depths, he cannot scale the heights. "They that are whole need not a physician, but they that are sick." How complete his unconsciousness of sin was, may be judged from the beginning and ending of the Preface to his "Recollections."
One of the most popular legends in Brittany is that relating to an imaginary town called Is, which is supposed to have been swallowed up by the sea at some unknown time. There are several places along the coast which are pointed out as the site of this imaginary city, and the fishermen have many strange tales to tell of it. According to them, the tips of the spires of the churches maybe seen in the hollows of the waves when the sea is rough, while during a calm the music of their bells, ringing out the hymn appropriate to the day, rises above the waters. I often fancy that I have at the bottom of my heart a city of Is, with its bells calling to prayer a recalcitrant congregation. At times I halt to listen to these gentle vibrations which seem as if they came from immeasurable depths, like voices from another world. Since old age began to steal over me, I have loved, especially during the repose which summer brings with it, to gather up these distant echoes of a vanished Atlantis.
Thus he acknowledges that there are voices from the depths of his nature which contradict the unbeliefs and the denials, the self-indulgences and the transgressions,
of his later life. But these voices have no permanent influence upon him. He has learned to argue them down, as the survivals of infantile ignorance. And the more frequently he silences them, the easier his method becomes. And so he can conclude his Preface with these words:
For my own part, I never feel my liberal faith more firmly rooted in me than when I ponder over the miracles of the ancient creed, nor more ardent for the work of the future than when I have been listening for hours to the bells of the city of Is.