Ladies and Gentlemen,—I was proud and happy to receive from the curators of this noble institution an invitation to continue here an instruction inaugurated by my illustrious confrère and friend, Max Müller, the usefulness of which will be more and more appreciated. A broad and sincere thought always bears fruit. It is thirty years since the venerable Robert Hibbert made a legacy for the purpose of aiding the progress of enlightened Christianity, inseparable, according to his idea, from the progress of science and reason. Wisely carried out, this foundation has become, in the hands of intelligent administrators, the centre of conferences upon all the great chapters of the history of religion and humanity: the promoters of this reform have asked, with reason, why the method which has proved good in all departments of intellectual culture should not also be good in the domain of religion? why the pursuit of truth, without regard to consequences, should be dangerous in theology, when it is approved of in the entire domain of social and natural science? You believed the truth, gentlemen, and you were right. There is but one truth; and we are wanting in respect to its revelation, if we allow that the critic ought to soften his severe processes when he treats of it. No, gentlemen, the truth is able to dispense with compliments. I come gladly at your call; for I understand the duties towards the right exactly as you do. With you, I should believe that I injured a faith in admitting that it required to be treated with a certain softness. I believe with you that the worship due from man to the ideal consists in independent scientific research, without regard to results, and that the true manner of rendering homage to the truth is to pursue it without ceasing, with the firm resolution of sacrificing all to it. You desire that these conferences shall present a great historic ensemble of the efforts which the human race has made to resolve the problems which surround it, and affect its destiny. In the present state of the human mind, no one can hope to resolve these problems: we suspect all dogmatism simply because it is dogmatism. We grant willingly that a religious or philosophical system can, indeed, or that it ought to, enclose a certain portion of truth; but we deny to it, without examination, the possibility of enclosing the absolute truth. What we love is history. History well written is always good; for, even if it should prove that man in seeking to seize the infinite has pursued a chimera, the history of these attempts, more generous than successful, will always be useful. It proves, that, in reality, man goes beyond the circle of his limited life through his aspirations. It shows what energy he has expended for the sake of his love of the good and true; it teaches us to estimate him,—this poor disinherited one, who, in addition to the sufferings which nature imposes upon him, imposes still further upon himself the torture of the unknown, the torture of doubt, the severe resistances of virtue, the abstinences of austerity, the voluntary sufferings of the ascetic. Is all this a pure loss? Is this unceasing effort to attain the unattainable as vain as the course of the child who pursues the ever flying object of his desire? It pains me to believe it; and the faith which eludes me when I examine in detail each of the systems scattered throughout the world, I find, in a measure, when I reflect upon all these systems together. All religions may be defective and incomplete; religion in humanity is nothing less than divine, and a mark of superior destiny. No, they have not labored in vain—those grand founders, those reformers, those prophets of all ages—who have protested against the false evidences of gross materialism, who have beaten themselves against the wall of the apparent fatality that encloses us; who have employed their thought, given their life, for the accomplishment of a mission which the spirit of their age had imposed upon them. If the fact of the existence of the martyrs does not prove the exclusive truth of this or that sect (all sects can show a rich martyrology), this fact in general proves that religious zeal responds to something mysterious. All,—as many as we are,—we are sons of martyrs. Those who talk the most of scepticism are frequently the most satisfied and indifferent. Those who have founded among you religious and political liberty, those who have founded in all Europe liberty of thought and research, those who have labored for the amelioration of the fate of men, those who will doubtless find means for further amelioration, have suffered, or will suffer, for their good work; for no one is ever recompensed for what he does for the good of humanity. Nevertheless they will always have imitators. There will always be some to carry on the work of the incorrigibles; some, possessed of the divine spirit, who will sacrifice their personal interest to truth and justice. Be it so: they have chosen the better part. I know not what assures me that he who, without knowing why, through simple nobility of nature, has chosen for himself in this world the essentially unproductive lot of doing good, is the true sage, and has discovered the legitimate use of life with more sagacity than the selfish man.


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 may be seen in the hollow 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 more especially during the repose which summer brings with it, to gather up these distant echoes of a vanished Atlantis.

This it is which has given birth to the six chapters which make up the present volume. The recollections of my childhood do not pretend to form a complete and continuous narrative. They are merely the images which arose before me and the reflections which suggested themselves to me while I was calling up a past fifty years old, written down in the order in which they came. Goethe selected as the title for his memoirs "Truth and Poetry," thereby signifying that a man cannot write his own biography in the same way that he would that of any one else. What one says of oneself is always poetical. To fancy that the small details of one's own life are worth recording is to be guilty of very petty vanity. A man writes such things in order to transmit to others the theory of the universe which he carries within himself. The form of the present work seemed to me a convenient one for expressing certain shades of thought which my previous writings did not convey. I had no desire to furnish information about myself for the future use of those who might wish to write essays or articles about me.

What in history is a recommendation would here have been a drawback; the whole of this small volume is true, but not true in the sense required-for a "Biographical Dictionary." I have said several things with the intent to raise a smile, and, if such a thing had been compatible with custom, I might have used the expression cum grano salis as a marginal note in many cases. I have been obliged to be very careful in what I wrote. Many of the persons to whom I refer may be still alive; and those who are not accustomed to find themselves in print have a sort of horror of publicity. I have, therefore, altered several proper names. In other cases, by means of a slight transposition of date and place, I have rendered identification impossible. The story of "the Flax-crusher" is absolutely true, with the exception that the name of the manor-house is a fictitious one. With regard to "Good Master Système," I have been furnished by M. Duportal du Godasmeur with further details which do not confirm certain ideas entertained by my mother as to the mystery in which this aged recluse enveloped his existence. I have, however, made no change in the body of the work, thinking that it would be better to leave M. Duportal to publish the true story, known only to himself, of this enigmatic character.


The first book of our History of the Origins of Christianity brought us down to the death and burial of Jesus; and we must now resume the subject at the point where we left it—that is to say, on Saturday, the fourth of April, in the year 33. The work will be for some time yet a sort of continuation of the life of Jesus. Next to the glad months, during which the great Founder laid the bases of a new order of things for humanity, these few succeeding years were the most decisive in the history of the world. It is still Jesus, who, by the holy fire kindled in the hearts of a few friends from the spark He himself has placed there, creates institutions of the highest originality, stirs and transforms souls, and impresses on everything His divine seal. It shall be ours to show how, under this influence, always active and victorious over death, the doctrines of faith in the resurrection, in the influence of the Holy Spirit, in the gift of tongues, and in the power of the Church, became firmly established. We shall describe the organization of the Church of Jerusalem, its first trials, and its first triumphs, and the earliest missions to which it gave birth. We shall follow Christianity in its rapid progress through Syria as far as Antioch, where it established a second capital in some respects more important than Jerusalem, and destined, even, to supplant the latter. In this new centre, where converted heathen were in the majority, we shall see Christianity separate itself definitively from Judaism, and receive a name of its own; and we shall note, above all, the birth of the grand idea of distant missions destined to carry the name of Jesus throughout the Gentile world. We shall pause at the solemn moment when Paul, Barnabas, and Mark depart to carry this great design into execution; and then, interrupting for a while our narrative, we shall cast a glance at the world which these brave missionaries sought to convert. We shall endeavor to give an account of the intellectual, political, moral, religious, and social condition of the Roman Empire at about the year 45, the probable date of the departure of St. Paul on his first mission.

Such is the scope of this second book which we have called The Apostles, because it is devoted to that period of common action, during which the little family created by Jesus acted in concert and was grouped morally around a single point—Jerusalem. Our next and third book, will lead us out of this company, and will have for almost its only character the man who, more than any other, represents conquering and spreading Christianity—St. Paul. Although from a certain epoch he may be called an apostle, Paul, nevertheless, was not so by the same title as the Twelve;[I.1] he was, in fact, a laborer of the second hour, and almost an intruder. Historical documents, as they have reached us, are apt to cause some misapprehension on this point. As we know infinitely more of the affairs of Paul than of those of the Twelve, as we possess his authentic writings and original memoirs relating with minute precision certain epochs of his life, we are apt to award him an importance of the first order, almost superior even to that of Jesus. This is an error. Paul was a very great man, and played a considerable part in the foundation of Christianity; but he should neither be compared to Jesus, nor even to his immediate disciples. Paul never saw Jesus, nor did he ever taste the ambrosia of the Galilean’s preaching; and the most mediocre man who had partaken of that heavenly manna, was through that very privilege, superior to him who had, as it were, only an after-taste. Nothing is more false than an opinion which has become fashionable in these days, and which would almost imply that Paul was the true founder of Christianity. Jesus alone is its true founder; and the next places to Him should be reserved for His grand yet obscure companions—for affectionate and faithful friends who believed in Him in the face of death. Paul was to the first century a kind of isolated phenomenon. Instead of an organized school, he left vigorous adversaries, who, after his death, wished to banish him from the Church, to place him on the same footing with Simon the Magician,[I.2] and would even have denied him the credit of that which we consider his special work—the conversion of the Gentiles.[I.3] The church of Corinth, which he alone had founded,[I.4] professed to owe its origin to him and to St. Peter.[I.5] In the second century Papias and St. Justin do not mention his name; and it was not till later, when oral tradition was lost and Scripture took its place, that Paul assumed a leading position in Christian theology. Paul, indeed, had a theology. Peter and Mary Magdalene had none. Paul has left elaborate works, and none of the writings of the other apostles can dispute the palm with his in either importance or authenticity.
Ernest Renan was one of the leading lights of the Parisian intellectual scene in the second half of the nineteenth century. A philologist, historian, and biblical scholar, he was a prominent voice of French liberalism and secularism. Today most familiar in the English-speaking world for his 1882 lecture “What Is a Nation?” and its definition of a nation as an “everyday plebiscite,” Renan was a major figure in the debates surrounding the Franco-Prussian War, the Paris Commune, and the birth of the Third Republic and had a profound influence on thinkers across the political spectrum who grappled with the problem of authority and social organization in the new world wrought by the forces of modernization.

What Is a Nation? and Other Political Writings is the first English-language anthology of Renan’s political thought. Offering a broad selection of Renan’s writings from several periods of his public life, most previously untranslated, it restores Renan to his place as one of France’s major liberal thinkers and gives vital critical context to his views on nationalism. The anthology illuminates the characteristics that distinguished nineteenth-century French liberalism from its English and American counterparts as well as the more controversial parts of Renan’s legacy, including his analysis of colonial expansion, his views on Islam and Judaism, and the role of race in his thought. The volume contains a critical introduction to Renan’s life and work as well as detailed annotations that assist in recovering the wealth and complexity of his thought.


In Which the Sources of This History Are Principally Treated

A history of the "Origin of Christianity" ought to embrace all the obscure, and, if one might so speak, subterranean periods which extend from the first beginnings of this religion up to the moment when its existence became a public fact, notorious and evident to the eyes of all. Such a history would consist of four books. The first, which I now present to the public, treats of the particular fact which has served as the starting-point of the new religion, and is entirely filled by the sublime person of the Founder. The second would treat of the apostles and their immediate disciples, or rather, of the revolutions which religious thought underwent in the first two generations of Christianity. I would close this about the year 100, at the time when the last friends of Jesus were dead, and when all the books of the New Testament were fixed almost in the forms in which we now read them. The third would exhibit the state of Christianity under the Antonines. We should see it develop itself slowly, and sustain an almost permanent war against the empire, which had just reached the highest degree of administrative perfection, and, governed by philosophers, combated in the new-born sect a secret and theocratic society which obstinately denied and incessantly undermined it. This book would cover the entire period of the second century. Lastly, the fourth book would show the decisive progress which Christianity made from the time of the Syrian emperors. We should see the learned system of the Antonines crumble, the decadence of the ancient civilization become irrevocable, Christianity profit from its ruin, Syria conquer the whole West, and Jesus, in company with the gods and the deified sages of Asia, take possession of a society for which philosophy and a purely civil government no longer sufficed. It was then that the religious ideas of the races grouped around the Mediterranean became profoundly modified; that the Eastern religions everywhere took precedence; that the Christian Church, having become very numerous, totally forgot its dreams of a millennium, broke its last ties with Judaism, and entered completely into the Greek and Roman world. The contests and the literary labors of the third century, which were carried on without concealment, would be described only in their general features. I would relate still more briefly the persecutions at the commencement of the fourth century, the last effort of the empire to return to its former principles, which denied to religious association any place in the State. Lastly, I would only foreshadow the change of policy which, under Constantine, reversed the position, and made of the most free and spontaneous religious movement an official worship, subject to the State, and persecutor in its turn.

I know not whether I shall have sufficient life and strength to complete a plan so vast. I shall be satisfied if, after having written the Life of Jesus, I am permitted to relate, as I understand it, the history of the apostles, the state of the Christian conscience during the weeks which followed the death of Jesus, the formation of the cycle of legends concerning the resurrection, the first acts of the Church of Jerusalem, the life of Saint Paul, the crisis of the time of Nero, the appearance of the Apocalypse, the fall of Jerusalem, the foundation of the Hebrew-Christian sects of Batanea, the compilation of the Gospels, and the rise of the great schools of Asia Minor originated by John. Everything pales by the side of that marvellous first century. By a peculiarity rare in history, we see much better what passed in the Christian world from the year 50 to the year 75, than from the year 100 to the year 150.
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