French Literature Of The 19th Century:
Poetry And The Drama
History, Philosophy, Criticism
Read More Articles About: French Literature Of The 19th Century
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Ernest Renan rose from a Breton peasant's cottage to be perhaps the first of those who added the distinct attraction of literary style to studies in history and allied subjects. He was born in 1823, was brought up religiously, and trained for the priesthood. In his study of Semitic languages he encountered difficulties in his religious belief which he afterward ascribed to philological causes, though this was probably a minor reason. In 1845 he left the Seminary, and was assisted by his sister until he could gain a living by teaching. He won a public prize for an essay on the Semitic languages, whereupon he was commissioned to make researches in Italy, the outcome of which was the important work on Arabic philosophy, "Averroès et l'Averroïsme" (1852). Various flattering promotions came within the next few years, during which he published "Etudes d'Histoire Religieuses," and an "Essai sur l'Origine du Language" (1858). When the army went to Syria, 186o, Renan was appointed scientific commissioner, which enabled him to explore the Holy Land. His first lecture, as professor of Hebrew in the Collége de France, caused a disturbance, of which the result was the withdrawal of the course. Now appeared the book with which his popular fame is most identified, the "Vie de Jésus" (Life of Jesus) (1864). It marks an epoch in modern religious literature, theological, historical and critical. The title indicated its humanistic bias, which aroused hostility so strong that the author was dismissed, and he refused to accept a proffered appointment in the Imperial Library as a consolation. The character of his book gave it notoriety, but its captivating style won the place it still holds in the literature of the world. Strauss's "Leben Jesu" had presented a mythical being instead of the Christ of loving tradition. Renan portrayed an ideal human character, full of beauty and the genius which touches the divine, yet shorn of the supreme qualities cherished by and essential to the Christian faith. The exquisite charm of the book did not conceal its radical weakness as offering a substitute for the Jesus of the Gospels. It was the first installment of an elaborate work, "Origines du Christianisme," of which there followed these volumes, "Les Apôtres" (1866), "Saint Paul et sa Mission" (1867) , "L'Antechrist" (1873) , "L'Eglise Chrétienne" (1879). The same graceful lucidity characterized these studies, which did not wholly escape dam-age from more drastic criticisms than Renan favored. His subsequent work included "Marcus Aurelius" (1881), "History of the People of Israel" (1887-1892). In his earlier years he issued translations of the Book of Job and Ecclesiastes. Besides these Renan wrote several philosophical essays and miscellaneous pieces in lighter vein. He was elected to the Academy in 1878, and delivered the Hibbert course of lectures in London, in 1880, on the "Influence of Pagan Rome on Christianity." So great and diversified a body of literary work of such high character gives its author enviable distinction among the best writers of his age. His immense learning, patient research, and his gift of utterance, while they placed him high among the scholars of the century, and the favorites of the public, seem nevertheless to have crowned him with the laurel of a graceful rather than a powerful intellectual athlete. He wrote "Recollections of Youth" in 1890. Having found after a long life of study that, as he expressed it, he really knew little more of the truth than a street boy gets at a first guess, his future influence may be gauged as that of a literary stylist first, scholar next, and a teacher last. Considerable egotism of a weak kind detracts from the value of his later and more personal writings.