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Autumn symposium

Homage to Ernest Renan

Sarah Lacoste
p. 53

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Source: La lettre, no. 35, December 2012

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1Organized by Henry Laurens. Excerpts from the talks of Henry Laurens, Perrine Simon-Nahum and Pierre Rosanvallon

2The author of a protean work, Ernest Renan was at once a writer, philologist, historian, and philosopher. He was also a professor of the Collège de France, of which he was the Administrateur from 1883 to 1892. The Autumn symposium of the Collège de France, which was held on 11 and 12 October 2012 on Henry Laurens’ initiative, looked at this complex personality, who is ultimately little-known and who was profoundly coherent, down to his very contradictions.

3Twenty participants took turns to discuss Renan, each from their own discipline’s perspective. The symposium took place over four half-days, of which the first was devoted to Renan’s life and the following ones to the mark he made on the domains of history and archaeology, philosophy, and politics. As a man of great curiosity and erudition, Renan was particularly well-suited to the cross-disciplinary perspective so dear to the Collège de France.

4From one talk to the next, a dialogue thus emerged, reflecting Renan’s interdisciplinary practice. Listening to them, the audience was able to gain awareness of the effective significance of such a personality: the Collège de France owes him its current motto (“Teaching research in the making”); and he was the founder of Assyriology, amongst other things. Renan was indeed at a crossroads, between Herodotus and Lévi-Strauss in his work as a historian, between the Enlightenment and Descartes in his approach to human reason. The man had an eminently syncretic dimension, due to which he raised numerous questions that are still relevant today: do religions have a future? What role can philosophy play in the new sciences?

5 As we progress through the papers a portrait of contrasts emerges: Renan was a man of contradictions – but not “schizo­phrenic”, as the different speakers stressed.

6In particular, how can we explain that he was far more in­te­res­ted in Semitic epigraphy than in Greco-Latin epigraphy, he who wrote a Life of Jesus? And why, while he was studying­ Phoenicia, were his thoughts not exclusively focused on Palestine, the cradle of civilization? The image painted over the course of these days ultimately represents Renan as a pathfinder, from Averroes to Buddhism: Renan the “creator of continuities” (Perrine Simon-Nahum). For these various approaches have the great merit of having successfully shown the extent to which these contradictions were only apparent, and how they could turn into underlying continuity: Renan was a man of great consistency in everything he did, loyal even when at odds, as attested to by his personal relationship to faith. “The particularity of faith”, he wrote, “is that once it has disappeared it is still active. Grace survives through the habit of the living feeling one has had of it”.

7Fascination with this profound coherence is compelling, although it in no way leads to heightening the awareness of the critical mind . Renan’s thinking, through its very constancy, is a tenacious, halting thought. He was a man of conflict, caught up in turbulent relations with religious authority, or in scientific controversies regarding the Semitic character he denied to Assyrian languages. Renan often even took debatable directions, from his simplistic standpoints on Phoenicians through to some of the statements he made, which would now sound resolutely racist.

8The study of his texts invites us to adopt a critical approach: there is always something to be challenged. When the young Renan wrote his thesis on Averroes, it was to trigger the debate which he expressed in L’Avenir de la science (The Future of Science), and to attack what for him represented “ancient philosophy”. While his approach as a historian of antiquity was founded on empathy, one should be able to decipher a posturing rather than real intimacy: it is best not to be seduced, for fear of falling back into caricatures that have portrayed the man in the past. Nowadays, Renan stands as an example in the very discontinuity, in the breaks and collisions he introduced: those of the modern mind.

Find the Renan symposium at abstracts of most talks - videos of all the talks - eight 2.5 minute interviews, with Henry Laurens, Thomas Römer, Corinne Bonnet, Claudine Tiercelin, Pierre Rosanvallon, Perrine Simon-Nahum, Antoine Compagnon, and Dominique Bourel.

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Référence électronique

Sarah Lacoste, « Homage to Ernest Renan », La lettre du Collège de France [En ligne], 7 | 2015, mis en ligne le 02 novembre 2015, consulté le 21 février 2017. URL :

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