Wednesday, July 25, 2018
Some ideas are truly tried and true. “A good book,” Milton wrote in his Aereopagitica, “is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.” It seems wonderful to me that a man in his eighties can still discover “new” master spirits with all the pleasure and excitement of his twenties. In my last days in Paris earlier this month I finally got around to reading some Ernest Renan (1823-1892), one of the iconic European intellectuals of the nineteenth century. His literary and scholarly production in the fields of philology, philosophy, and history was enormous, and I have barely scraped its surface with what are perhaps his two most popular books: his Life of Jesus and his very charming Reminiscences of Childhood and Youth.*
Renan was born in Tréguier in Brittany, a literal as well as a metaphoric backwater in the most westerly bump on the map of France. His part of the country had not been entirely enthusiastic about the Revolution, and he was born and raised in a climate of colorful if reactionary Catholicism. For a brilliant boy living in the sticks, the Church offered the nearly inevitable career path, and Renan began training for the priesthood. History had other ideas, and Renan would become, in the judgment of Pope Pius IX, “the great blasphemer of Europe”.
That was on account of Renan’s very popular biography of Jesus, and it is an opinion available only to someone who has not actually read it. By the time Renan wrote it he had adopted the scientific principle that supernatural events that did not occur in his own century could not be safely attributed to earlier ones; but in this view he was far from a pioneer. The scholarly demythologizing of Christianity was well under way in the eighteenth century, but what might be called its “popular” phases belong to the nineteenth. A new biographical approach to the person of Jesus Christ would create a permanent distinction between the “historical Jesus” and the theologized figure at the center of the Christian creeds. In 1835 a Protestant theologian in Germany, Friedrich Strauss, published an analysis of the gospels in which the life of Jesus was, to use his term, “critically examined”. He denied the divinity of Jesus and characterized the supernatural elements in the gospels as folkloristic accretions dating from the early centuries of the Christian movement and expressing in poetic form their authors’ messianic hopes and beliefs. Strauss’s book, the Leben Jesu, sent shock waves through the Protestant world. An English translation, made after the fourth German edition, appeared in England in 1846. The translation was the first published work of a brilliant young woman named Marian Evans who, under the pseudonym George Eliot, would become one of the greatest of English novelists. In her greatest novel, Middlemarch, she dramatized the upheaval caused in the English church by “German scholarship.”
The enormous erudition of Renan’s Life of Jesus has long been overtaken by the vastness of more than a century of intensive biblical scholarship; but his book’s generous spirit remains remarkable. The first adjective that comes to my mind is reverent. Renan was the heir of many intellectual trends, including that of humanistic Romanticism at its best. Like Strauss and the other demythologizers he had to abandon the traditional ideas of Jesus’s divinity. But he is so overwhelmed by the ethical purity he discovers in Jesus’s life that he allows as metaphor what he must forbid as theology. He very nearly paraphrases Keats: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, —that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”.
Throughout his biography of Jesus the reader will find exemplified a principle—I will call it historical generosity--made explicit at the beginning of his short account of his own early years. Historical generosity is a rare virtue, and there is little of it in our contemporary world. The preface to his Reminiscences (Souvenirs) is built around the charming Breton folk legend of a vanished town called the ville d’Is, a kind of mini-Atlantis somewhere submerged along the coast of Brittany. The old mariners would claim that on occasion they could faintly discern in the deep the church steeples of Is, and even hear the faint sounding of the church bells. “Truth,” Renan writes, “whatever one says, is superior to fiction. One should never regret seeing things more clearly. In seeking to add to the treasure of truths which make up the wealth accumulated by humanity, we are the continuators of our pious ancestors who loved the good and the true under the received forms of their own times. It is a very grievous error to believe that one serves one’s country by denigrating those who founded it. Every era of a nation is a leaf in the same book. The true progressives are those who take as their point of departure a profound respect for the past….For myself, I am never firmer in my liberal beliefs than when I dream of the miracles of the Old Faith, and never more eager for the work of the future than when I rest for a time to listen for the ringing of the bells in the ville d’Is.”
*Vie de Jésus published in 1863 as the first of many volumes of a study of Christian origins; Souvenirs d’enfance et de jeunesse published in 1883.