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‘What Is a Nation?’ and Other Political Writings 
by Ernest Renan, translated and edited by M.F.N. Giglioli.
Columbia, 328 pp., £62, September 2018, 978 0 231 17430 5
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‘Whatever may be the judgment of time on the intrinsic value of Renan’s contribution to the sum of knowledge, he can never lose his place among the few great names in the history of letters.’ This assessment from the 1901 edition of Chambers’s Encyclopedia, equally striking today for its confidence and its remoteness, summarises the conventional wisdom at the beginning of the 20th century. The only figure of comparable range and standing Chambers could think to compare Renan to was Erasmus. Betting on the comparative durability of reputations really is a mug’s game.

Even now, it is difficult to move around in 19th-century intellectual history without bumping into Ernest Renan (1823-92). As so often with figures of such widely ramifying influence, he cannot easily be pigeonholed. ‘Philologist’, in its broad and now archaic sense, may be the least misleading label. Working initially from a post in the Bibliothèque nationale, he made a reputation in the 1850s as a leading scholar of the development of semitic languages, resulting in his nomination to the chair of Hebrew philology at the Collège de France in 1861. In the mid-19th century such subjects were far from recondite: they trenched on vital questions of belief and ecclesiastical orthodoxy. In his inaugural lecture at the Collège, Renan appeared to deny the divinity of Christ, and Napoleon III, under pressure from clerical interests, refused to ratify his appointment (he was only confirmed in the chair in 1870). In 1863 he published La Vie de Jésus, one of the most controversial books of the century, which became an international bestseller. In it, Renan celebrated the historical Jesus, understood as a man of exceptional purity and a teacher of simple moral truths. Renan’s case was grounded in the latest historical and philological scholarship, most of it originating in Germany, a body of work that was having a corrosive effect on the religious beliefs of numerous intellectual figures across Europe: the book could not be dismissed as a mere polemic, still less the work of a mischievous muckraker.

More generally, Renan had developed in the course of the 1850s and 1860s into what might anachronistically be called a cultural critic. He dissected aspects of French intellectual and political life in long review-essays in the major periodicals, notably La Revue des deux mondes. Two collections of these pieces, Essais de morale et de critique (1859), and then La Réforme intellectuelle et morale de la France (1871), established him as one of the most respected commentators on the contemporary scene, though no one could ever have called him a journalist. Perhaps ‘savant’ better captures his standing, suggesting the authority of a generalised learning and a somewhat old-fashioned, pre-professional identity. He could write sharply about the follies of popular democracy or the illiberalism of Napoleon III, yet he positioned himself as the voice of science and reason, above the quotidian fray.

As a young man, caught up in the turmoil of 1848, Renan wrote a manifesto, ‘The Future of Science’, which gave confident expression to his hopes that disinterested inquiry would increasingly dispel superstition and confusion. But, perhaps for reasons of prudence, he didn’t publish his declaration of scholarly faith at the time, and when it did finally appear in 1890, Renan, contemplating his youthful enthusiasm with head-shaking condescension, found it over-optimistic, as well he might. He was, of course, speaking of ‘science’ in the sense of Wissenschaft: that is, ‘scholarship’ or ‘organised knowledge’, not natural science narrowly conceived. His attitude to the accumulated learning of the Gelehrter bordered on reverence (the German terms are appropriate since Renan took so much of his inspiration from German thought and scholarship). Above all, he celebrated the ‘vocation’ of the scholar, complete with its religious connotations, an impersonal dedication to truth that raised one above the petty fripperies of partisan dispute. Renan found precious little comfort in contemporary politics, as his country lurched from the coup of 1851 to the repressive regime of the Second Empire and on to the defeat of 1871. Scholarship was a retreat and an antidote. But for all Renan’s claims that he dwelled in the world of ideas, being above the mêlée did not mean being indifferent. He was almost obsessively concerned with the character of French society, with the role of cultural authority, and with questions of leadership. In 1869 he even stood, unsuccessfully, for election to the Chamber of Deputies, an experience that confirmed he was better at theorising about leadership than he was at exercising it.

Although a champion of science, Renan was less of a positivist than the slightly younger contemporary with whom he is frequently bracketed, Hippolyte Taine. Renan’s thinking flirts with a strain of post-Hegelian idealism, a yearning to find in the phases of the human spirit the motor of history. At the same time he feared that a growing rationalism might eradicate the ‘poetry’ of the world: his sternly professorial persona was streaked with a late Romantic sensibility, perhaps another aspect of his inheritance from German intellectual and artistic culture in the first half of the century. Where Taine looked for what we might now call sociological patterns of explanation, Renan was more concerned to retrieve what might still be spiritually active from the unique sequence of human achievements. Religion without superstition; science without dogma; art without indulgence: it was all a bit strenuous, and a touch of complacent self-importance was never far away. Reading him in bulk, one registers a somewhat heavy, upholstered, Second Empire feel to much of his prose. It wasn’t, to put it mildly, marked by playfulness. Speaking as the Voice of Reason and Science apparently doesn’t allow for much messing about.

Renan had been brought up in a severe, rather old-fashioned Catholicism – indeed, he was a seminarian until his loss of faith at the age of 22 – but thereafter, like a host of earnest Victorian doubters, he wanted to rescue the ethical and emotional truths of religion from the clutches of creeds and churches. Even now it isn’t easy to decide whether he believed that Christianity had a unique claim to truth, which had somehow got warped and ossified, obscuring its universal ethical core; or instead that it was a staging post on humanity’s voyage of self-discovery, central to two thousand years of European history, but ultimately to be superseded and discarded. He was, of course, far from being the only 19th-century figure whose thinking exhibited such a fundamental ambiguity, and perhaps this creative unclarity was one of the reasons for his extraordinarily wide reach.

To take an obvious example, Renan is everywhere in the work of Matthew Arnold, arguably his nearest British homologue. Arnold quickly recognised the kinship when Renan’s Essais appeared, confiding to one correspondent before the end of 1859 that ‘with respect both to morality and intelligence I think we are singularly at one in our ideas – and also with respect both to the progress [sic] and the established religion of the present day.’ The two men displayed a similar sense of their role, drawing on the resources of culture and learning to chastise the narrowness and materialism of the present. Renan’s biblical criticism and scholarship on the Near East were important sources for Arnold’s writings on religion, and Arnold’s once celebrated Lectures on the Study of Celtic Literature acknowledged a debt to Renan’s ‘Sur la poésie des races celtiques’. (Renan’s own Breton origins infused his philological researches with sentiment, a mixture always likely to appeal to Arnold.)

Renan crops up again and again in British intellectual and literary history in the later decades of the 19th century. For example, his work made a deep impression on the young and precocious Mary Ward, later better known as Mrs Humphry Ward, author of the hugely successful Robert Elsmere (1888). Through the good offices of her uncle, Matthew Arnold, she met Renan in Paris, and thanks to the patronage of John Morley she reviewed his autobiography in Macmillan’s Magazine. Renan’s conception of the ethical character of Jesus obliquely informs her most famous novel, which charts the anguished loss of belief and its replacement by an exacting ethic of service. This was no isolated instance. For two or three decades, La Vie de Jésus served as the breviary of a certain type of ardent moralist who couldn’t quite believe in traditional Christianity but couldn’t quite dismiss it either.

Although he was an intellectual figure of Europe-wide stature, Renan’s political interests seem almost obsessively ‘hexagonal’. What happened in France in 1850-51 wrecked his hopes just as the events of 1870-71 confirmed his fears, leading him to elaborate a notably disillusioned, withdrawn kind of liberalism. He introduces La Réforme intellectuelle et morale by emphasising his chastened state:

I had made it the dream of a lifetime to strive, to the feeble extent of my abilities, towards the intellectual, moral and political alliance of Germany and France, an alliance entailing one with England as well and constituting a force capable of governing the world, of guiding it, that is, on the road to liberal civilisation, equally far from the naively blind enthusiasms of democracy and the puerile aspirations for a return to a past that will not live again.

Prussia’s victory at Sedan ended this dream. He registers his dismay that Germany could turn into such a militaristic force, but his main attention is, characteristically, focused on the intellectual and moral condition of France. ‘France such as universal suffrage has fashioned it has become deeply materialistic; the noble preoccupations of the past, patriotism, enthusiasm for beauty, love of glory, have disappeared along with the noble classes that represented the soul of France.’ The cultural pessimism evident here even seems to endorse a restored role for monarchy and aristocracy: ‘Selfishness, the source of socialism, and jealousy, the source of democracy, will never produce anything but a weak society, incapable of resisting powerful neighbours.’

Predictably, Renan calls for a moral or spiritual renewal, confident that he knows from where it must come. ‘French-style democracy will never endow the knowledgeable with enough authority for them to be able to make a rational course prevail,’ he writes, and, again: ‘A nation’s consciousness resides in the enlightened part of the nation, which leads and commands the rest.’ Such phrases are reminders of Renan’s unashamed intellectual elitism and his dismay at the gullible enthusiasm unleashed by universal suffrage. Like John Stuart Mill, another complex liberal, Renan would be happy to give the votes of ‘the knowledgeable’ and ‘the enlightened part of the nation’ some kind of extra weighting. But he is far more conservative than Mill, and far less worried about the power of vested interests, so can announce without reservation that ‘a two-tier suffrage would introduce a much superior aristocratic principle.’

Along with the echo of Mill, there is also a quasi-Carlylean or even Nietzschean tone to much of this, as Renan rails against decadence and bigs up those exceptional figures who can rise above the crowd. But these figures must be intellectual or spiritual heroes, not blustering demagogues. Institutions such as the Académie française – to which he was elected in 1878 – and the Collège de France could be founts of wisdom, whereas the Assemblée nationale was a midden of folly (his belief in the cultural importance of a national academy was another point of contact with Arnold). In 1871, Renan concluded his inquest by striking a note of noble stoicism: ‘“Never hope too much and never despair,” this must be our motto … Foreign or domestic emigration is the worst action one can commit.’ Renan came close to being an internal émigré at times, but although his interventions assumed an increasingly conservative character, there was always so much in his country’s public life that was crying out for correction that he could never entirely retreat behind the walls of the scholarly monastery.

Andthen in 1882 he delivered a lecture at the Sorbonne that has become by far the best-known of his writings today: ‘Qu’est-ce qu’une nation?’ Here he argues that history has known a variety of social entities that were not nations – tribes, peoples, empires, fiefdoms and so on – but that Western Europe since the fall of Charlemagne has been divided into nations. These units resulted from accidents of history, yet they have acquired something that distinguishes them from other recognisable social groupings. How is it, he asks, ‘that Switzerland, which has three languages, two religions, and three or four races is a nation, while Tuscany, for instance, which is so homogeneous, is not?’ He then examines, only to dismiss, five ostensibly plausible answers to his title question. What makes something a nation is not being bounded by natural geographical frontiers, or the existence of a ruling dynasty, or its people belonging to a single race, or the sharing of a common language, or the possession of common interests. Rather, Renan declares (somewhat mystically): ‘A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle,’ and it is made up of two elements – ‘One is the possession in common of a rich legacy of memories; the other is present consent, the desire to live together, the will to perpetuate the heritage that one has received in an undivided form’. So, ‘continuing consent’ is, essentially, the answer he gives to his own question. ‘A nation’s existence is (if you will pardon the metaphor) an everyday plebiscite, just as an individual’s existence is a perpetual affirmation of life.’ For this reason, he goes on (with debatable logic): ‘A nation never has any real interest in annexing or holding onto a country against its will. What the nation wants is, ultimately, the only legitimate criterion, the one to which one must always return.’

This conclusion is one clue to the hidden agenda of Renan’s lecture: namely, the never to be forgiven crime of Germany’s annexation of Alsace-Lorraine in 1871. If the overwhelming majority of the inhabitants of these territories consent to be ruled from Paris but not from Berlin, then they are part of the French nation and the annexation has no legitimacy. Since this conviction was intuitively shared by every French citizen already, Renan’s learned lecture might seem to be pushing hard at an open door. Yet this short piece (it takes up just 15 pages of this new selection) has enjoyed a remarkable afterlife, as practically every theorist of nationalism for a hundred years or more has felt obliged to take cognisance of its case.

Perhaps the very simplicity of Renan’s argument has been the secret of its longevity. It can be seen as a condensation of the work of ‘science’ as he understood it, since it is essentially an exercise in organised scepticism: it demonstrates, briefly but forcefully, that none of the popular understandings of what makes a nation are persuasive when confronted with the evidence of history. Still, it may be felt that his strikingly voluntarist answer raises the question of what makes some ‘senses of shared identity’ nations and others not: to say that it depends on consent doesn’t do anything to explain the circumstances that various groups of people find themselves in, although the entity they are consenting to is necessarily the product of one set of circumstances rather than another. Renan’s telling rhetorical questions can rebound on him here. ‘Why is Holland a nation,’ he asks, ‘when Hanover and the Grand Duchy of Parma are not?’ But it is hard not to think that their contrasting political histories are a big part of the answer. Without going so far as to endorse the aphorism of Piłsudski, the Polish ‘liberator’ (quoted in Eric Hobsbawm’s Nations and Nationalism since 1780, which makes frequent reference to Renan), that ‘it is the state which makes the nation and not the nation the state,’ we may still feel that some part is surely played by the achievement of enduring political autonomy. Even Renan’s famous metaphor about a nation being ‘un plébiscite de tous les jours’ has an irreducibly political character: some organisational entity defines who gets to vote. (Incidentally, Hobsbawm’s translation of the key phrase as a ‘daily plebiscite’, not an ‘everyday plebiscite’, seems preferable, emphasising its continuing and repeated quality rather than its mundaneness.)

It isn’t hard to understand why the editor or publisher has chosen to give the title of Renan’s most celebrated essay to this collection, but it risks misrepresenting the scope of a volume which usefully brings together and translates representative pieces of political writing from across his career. The four central chapters (out of 11) come from La Réforme intellectuelle et morale, the collection which best displays his somewhat conservative or aristocratic version of liberalism. In Renan’s case it is particularly tricky, as M.F.N. Giglioli acknowledges in his judicious introduction, to decide what should count as ‘political’ and what should not. His writings on religion, language and history often served as barely coded defences of free thought which, especially under the repressive regime of the Second Empire, were highly political. This useful edition may help to bring Renan some new readers, especially among those curious about the fashionable topic of 19th-century French liberalism, but such niche scholarly interest seems unlikely to be enough to restore him to a pedestal alongside Erasmus.

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