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Renan, Founding Father of the Republic?

p. 57

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Source: La lettre, no. 35, December 2012

Guizot positions himself in this new configuration of intellectual confrontations, as Sainte-Beuve aptly noted in the article he published on the first series of his Méditations sur l’essence de la religion chrétienne [Meditations on the Essence of Christianity]. His opponents in the 1860s, he explained, were no longer Thiers, Barrot, Berryer, Duvergier de Hauranne, but “the Darwins, the Littrés, the Renans, the Scherers” (Nouveaux Lundis, Vol. IX, p. 90). As he was also politically close to Taine and Renan, his position was a complex one.

(2) Later reprinted in La Réforme intellectuelle et morale, the text was not discussed any further, as it had been at the time of its first publication in the Revue des deux mondes.

Texte intégral

1How could the man who accused universal suffrage of having made a “house of sand” of society, have come to be celebrated by the generation who had made its very conquest their ultimate goal? How could the man who claimed that “equality is the greatest cause of political and military weakening there is”, have come to prevail as an intellectual reference in the eyes of those who, meanwhile, were having the republican motto engraved onto the pediments of schools and town halls?

2To understand why Renan was celebrated by the first generation of founding fathers of the Republic we must make a detour through Orleanist thought. Royer-Collard, Guizot or Rémusat could all have put their name to the analyses and arguments in La Réforme. A man of liberal-conservative ideals, which were both aristocratic and based on qualified voting rights, Renan changed the tone of these ideals by dissociating them from the sociological valence (asserting a central role for the middle classes) with which the Doctrinaires had associated them. His elitist vision established itself as a cult of both science and intelligence, relatively indifferent to class. Encompassed in a reflection on progress, the aristocratic dimension of his thought thus shed the more scandalous elements of original Doctrinaire expression. Renan also repositioned these aims within a secular and scientistic moral framework, at a time when focal points of intellectual confrontation in society were being restructured, with the catholic/republican opposition adding itself to earlier antagonisms, sometimes to the point of erasing them.

3There is another factor to take into account if we are to understand the role played by Renan. It has to do with the social type that he represents: that of a scholar and eminent prof­essor. What would have been dismissed, coming from a political orator, was accepted from a scholar’s pen. Likewise, certain political views against the grain could be deemed unfortunate yet forgivable faux pas, as was certainly the case when Renan published La Monarchie constitutionnelle en France (The Constitutional Monarchy in France) in 1869.

4Renan’s position with regard to Orleanism was therefore that of a rewriter rather than of an heir. The first generation of founding fathers recycled his critique of democracy as republican elitism, and rationalized a certain upper-class contempt for the pea­santry, at the time still the large majority of the lower classes, by integrating it into a historical vision of political alienation.

5Yet this is but one of the dimensions of the ties between Renan and the first generation of founding fathers, who also converged in the 1880s around a certain vision of the nation of which Renan had become a sensitive and theorizing interpreter. Although his thoughts on society’s organization and legitimate mode of functioning could be elitist and barely democratic, it is crucial to see that Renan had a fully democratic vision of the nation. From this perspective, we can consider that Renan accepted and even called for the role of an institutional demo­cracy, and that he manifested profound scepticism, if not opposition, with regard to a regulatory democracy. In other words, democracy was acceptable to him only as a power of legitimization, not as a regime or a form of government. Importantly, Renan and the first generation of founding fathers also shared the same pragmatic and disillusioned vision of political action.

6Renan’s position with regard to the second generation of founding fathers – that of Ferdinand Buisson, Léon Bourgeois and Waldeck Rousseau – was entirely different. Enlightened by the philosophies of Henri Michel, Charles Renouvier, and Alfred Fouillée, they consolidated the republican project in a perspective completely foreign to the Orleanist legacy. With them, the republican Republic became the democratic Republic, marked by a concern for the social question which was alien to the first generation of founding fathers.

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Pierre ROSANVALLON, « Renan, Founding Father of the Republic?  », La lettre du Collège de France [En ligne], 7 | 2015, mis en ligne le 02 novembre 2015, consulté le 23 janvier 2019. URL :

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