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HomeCollège de France Newsletter7Autumn symposiumGeneral Presentation of Renan’s Work

Autumn symposium

General Presentation of Renan’s Work

Henry Laurens
p. 55

Editor’s notes

Source: La lettre, no. 35, December 2012

Full text

1Renan was born on 28 February 1823 in Tréguier. During the 1820s, the term Orientalism came to be widely used to refer both to scientific research and to a literary and artistic movement. Scientifically speaking, this Orientalism was based on the crucial discovery of the kinship between Indo-European languages.

2In 1838, Renan was sent to the small seminary of Saint-Nicolas du Chardonnet, then to the big seminary of Issy, part of Saint-Sulpice. From 1842 he experienced a major religious crisis, as the philosophical training he received stood in opposition to the scholastic theology he was being taught. The difficulties experienced at that time were nevertheless alleviated by his discovery of biblical philology. In 1845, he definitively left the seminary. From his very first academic piece of work, the Essai historique et théorique sur les langues sémitiques en ­général, et sur la langue hébraïque en particulier (Historical and Theoretical Essay on the Semitic Languages in General, and on the Hebrew Language in particular), he was immediately seen in Orientalist circles as highly promising. His great intellectual project concerned religion. It obviously corresponded to his personal development, but its originality lay also in considering modernity as having a religious form.

3In 1848, he wrote L’Avenir de la science. The book presents a whole series of working hypo­theses in the form of assertions: the purpose of modern critique is to destroy all belief systems marred by supernatu­ralism; science, critique, rationalism, civilization, philosophy, are all synonymous; philology, understood as polymathy, is the science of the products of the human mind. This text already presented a fundamental opposition between the Indo-Germanic races, characterized by mythology and philosophy, and the Semitic races, characterized by the religious mind. But he first had to prove himself in the scientific domain before holding a Chair at the Collège de France.

4Renan thus devoted the 1850s to developing his philological work. While extolling the virtues of the Indo-European mind, he essentially devoted himself to mapping out the Semitic mind. This philological work constituted both the prolegomena of a history of the origins of Christianity announced in The Future of Science, and the culmination of the synthesis of Orientalism and nineteenth-century historical thinking. Meanwhile, Renan started to become aware of the danger of giving too much importance to the racial aspect, especially if it was given a biological character.

  • 1 Œuvres Complètes, Paris, 1948, Vol. II, pp. 317-335

5Renan was elected to the Collège de France on 2 December 1861. His Inaugural Lecture, De la part des peuples sémitiques dans l’histoire de la civilisation(The Role of the Semitic Peoples in the History of Civilization), was a real provocation1. His contemporaries remembered the phrase: Jesus is “an incomparable man”; today, we especially remember his condemnation of Islam. Faced with scandal, the imperial regime suspended his lecture series.

6During his mission in Phoenicia in 1860, Renan had planned the writing of a life of Jesus. While portraying Jesus as a personality of high moral integrity, he rejected any supernatural intervention. Published on 24 July 1863, La vie de Jésus (The Life of Jesus) was a new scandal, as well as a great bestseller. For lack of conciliation, Renan was relieved from his Chair at the Collège de France.

7One of the first gestures of the Third Republic was to re-instate him in his Chair at the Collège de France in December 1870. In his public interventions, Renan advocated both harmony among the European peoples and the superiority of European races over the rest of the world, thereby justifying colonial domination. On 13 June 1878 he was triumphantly elected to the Académie française, and in 1883 he also became the Administrateur of the Collège de France. He died on 2 October 1892.

8Renan owed his immense success to his qualities as a writer and his ability to answer the questions of his time. Yet his work was immediately called into question after his death. On this point, Renan bears an important responsibility. His bestselling success throughout Europe popularised the terms of Aryans and Semites which, with the distortions that are involved, came to be commonly used in the last few years of his life. But it would be absurd to call Renan an anti-Semite. His apology of the Greek miracle should not detract from the fact that he devoted his entire life to Semitic studies.

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1 Œuvres Complètes, Paris, 1948, Vol. II, pp. 317-335

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Bibliographical reference

Henry Laurens, General Presentation of Renan’s WorkLa lettre du Collège de France, 7 | -1, 55.

Electronic reference

Henry Laurens, General Presentation of Renan’s WorkLa lettre du Collège de France [Online], 7 | 2015, Online since 02 November 2015, connection on 02 December 2022. URL:; DOI:

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Henry Laurens

History of the Contemporary Arab World

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