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Recollections of My Youth by Ernest Renan

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betrayed me! I never doubted but that a wise and merciful Providence
governed the universe and governed me in the course which I was to
take. It is not, however, without considerable effort that I have been
able to apply so formal a contradiction to apparent facts. I often say
to myself that vulgar common sense is little capable of appreciating
the providential government whether of humanity, of the universe, or
of the individual. The isolated consideration of facts would scarcely
tend to optimism. It requires a strong dose of optimism to credit God
with this generosity in spite of experience. I hope that I shall never
feel any hesitation upon this point, and that whatever may be the ills
which Providence yet has in store for me I shall ever believe that it
is guiding me to the highest possible good through the least possible

"According to what I hear from Germany, the situation which was
offered me there is still open;[1] only I cannot enter upon it before
the spring. This makes my journey thither very doubtful, and throws me
back into fresh perplexities. I am also advised to go through a year
of free study in Paris, during which time I should be able to reflect
upon my future career, and also take my university degrees. I am very
much inclined to adopt this last-named course, for though I have made
up my mind to come back to the seminary and confer with you and the
superiors, I should nevertheless be very reluctant to make a long
stay there in my present condition of mind. It is with the utmost
apprehension that I mark the near approach of the time when my inward
irresolution must find expression in a most decided course of action.
Hard it is to have thus to reascend the stream down which one has for
so long been gently floated! If only I could be sure of the future,
and of being one day able to secure for my ideas their due place, and
follow up at my ease and free from all external preoccupations the
work of my intellectual and moral improvement! But even could I
be sure of myself, how could I be of the circumstances which force
themselves so pitilessly upon us? In truth, I am driven to regret the
paltry store of liberty which God has given us; we have enough to
make us struggle; not enough to master destiny, just enough to insure

"Happy are the children who only sleep and dream, and who never have a
thought of entering upon this struggle with God Himself! I see around me
men of pure and simple mind, whom Christianity suffices to render
virtuous and happy. God grant that they may never develop the miserable
faculty of criticism which so imperiously demands satisfaction, and
which, when once satisfied, leaves such little happiness in the soul!
Would to God that it were in my power to suppress it. I would not
hesitate at amputation if it were lawful and possible. Christianity
satisfies all my faculties except one, which is the most exacting of
them all, because it is by right judge over all the others. Would it not
be a contradiction in terms to impose conviction upon the faculty which
creates conviction? I am well aware that the orthodox will tell me that
it is my own fault if I have fallen into this condition. I will not
argue the point; no man knows whether he is worthy of love or hatred. I
am quite willing, therefore, to say that it is my fault, provided those
who love me promise to pity me and continue me their friendship.

"A result which now seems beyond all doubt is that I shall not revert
to orthodoxy by continuing to follow the same line,--I mean that of
rational and critical self-examination. Up till now, I hoped that
after having travelled over the circle of doubt I should come back
to the starting-point. I have quite lost this hope, and a return
to Catholicism no longer seems possible to me, except by a receding
movement, by stopping short in the path which I have entered, by
stigmatising reason, by declaring it for once and all null and void,
and by condemning it to respectful silence. Each step in my career of
criticism takes me further away from the starting-point. Have I, then,
lost all hope of coming back to Catholicism? That would be too bitter
a thought. No, sir, I have no hopes of reverting to it by rational
progress; but I have often been on the point of repudiating for once
and all the guide whom at times I mistrust. What would then be the
motive of my life? I cannot tell; but activity will ever find scope.
You may be sure that I must have been sorely forced to have dwelt for
one instant upon a thought which seems more cruel to me than death.
And yet, if my conscience represented it to me as lawful, I should
eagerly avail myself of it, if only out of common decency.

"I hope at all events that those who know me will admit that
interested motives have not estranged me from Christianity. Have not
all my material interests tempted me to find it true? The temporal
considerations against which I have had to struggle would have
sufficed to persuade many others; my heart has need of Christianity;
the Gospel will ever be my moral law; the church has given me my
education, and I love her. Could I but continue to style myself her
son! I pass from her in spite of myself; I abhor the dishonest attacks
levelled at her; I frankly confess that I have no complete substitute
for her teaching; but I cannot disguise from myself the weak points
which I believe that I have found in it and with regard to which it
is impossible to effect a compromise, because we have to do with a
doctrine in which all the component parts hold together and cannot be

"I sometimes regret that I was not born in a land where the bonds of
orthodoxy are less tightly drawn than in Catholic countries. For, at
whatever cost, I am resolved to be a Christian; but I cannot be an
orthodox Catholic. When I find such independent and bold thinkers as
Herder, Kant, and Fichte, calling themselves Christians, I should like
to be so too. But can I be so in the Catholic faith, which is like a
bar of iron? and you cannot reason with a bar of iron. Will not some
one found amongst us a rational and critical Christianity? I will
confess to you that I believe that I have discovered in some German
writers the true kind of Christianity which is adapted to us. May
I live to see this Christianity assuming a form capable of fully
satisfying all the requirements of our age! May I myself cooperate in
the great work! What so grieves me is the thought that perhaps it will
be needful to be a priest in order to accomplish that; and I could not
become a priest without being guilty of hypocrisy.

"Forgive me, sir, these thoughts, which must seem very reprehensible
to you. You are aware that all this has not as yet any dogmatic
consistence in me; I still cling to the Church, my venerable mother; I
recite the Psalms with heartfelt accents; I should, if I followed the
bent of my inclination, pass hours at a time in church; gentle, plain,
and pure piety touches me to the very heart; and I even have sharp
relapses of devotional feeling. All this cannot coexist without
contradiction with my general condition. But I have once for all made
up my mind on the subject; I have cast off the inconvenient yoke
of consistency, at all events for the time. Will God condemn me for
having simultaneously admitted that which my different faculties
simultaneously exact, although I am unable to reconcile their
contradictory demands? Are there not periods in the history of the
human mind when contradiction is necessary? When the moral verities
are under examination, doubt is unavoidable; and yet during this
period of transition the pure and noble mind must still be moral,
thanks to a contradiction. Thus it is that I am at times both Catholic
and Rationalist; but holy orders I can never take, for 'once a priest,
always a priest.'

"In order to keep my letter within due limits, I must bring the long
story of my inward struggles to a close. I thank God, who has seen
fit to put me through so severe a trial, for having brought me into
contact with a mind such as yours, which is so well able to understand
this trial, and to whom I can confide it without reserve."

M---- wrote me a very kind-hearted reply, offering a merely formal
opposition to my project of following my own course of study. My
sister, whose high intelligence had for years been like the pillar of
fire which lighted my path, wrote from Poland to encourage me in my
resolution, which was finally taken at the end of September. It was
a very honest and straightforward act; and it is one which I now look
back upon with the greatest satisfaction. But what a cruel severance.
It was upon my mother's account that I suffered the most. I was
compelled to inflict a deep wound upon her without being able to
give the slightest explanation. Although gifted with much native
intelligence, she was not sufficiently educated to understand that
a person's religious faith can be affected because he has discovered
that the Messianic explanations of the Psalms are erroneous, and that
Gesenius, in his commentary upon Isaiah, is in nearly every point
right when combating the arguments of the orthodox. It grieved me
much, also, to give pain to my old Brittany masters, who retained such
kindly feelings towards me. The critical question, as it represented
itself to my mind, would have seemed absolutely unintelligible to
them, so plain and unquestioning was their faith. I went back to Paris
therefore without letting them know anything more than that I was
likely to travel, and that my ecclesiastical studies might possibly be

The masters of St. Sulpice, accustomed to take a broader view of
things, were not very much surprised. M. Le Hir, who placed an
unlimited confidence in study, and who also knew how steady my conduct
was, did not dissuade me from devoting a few years to free study
in Paris, and sketched out the course which I was to follow at the
College de France and at the School of Eastern Languages. M. Carbon
was grieved; he saw how different my position must become, and he
promised to try and find me a quiet and honourable position. M.
Dupanloup[2] displayed in this matter the high and hearty appreciation
of spiritual things which constituted his superiority. I spoke very
frankly to him. The critical side of the question did not in any way
impress him, and my allusion to German criticism took him by surprise.
The labours of M. Le Hir were almost unknown to him. Scripture in his
eyes was only useful in supplying preachers with eloquent passages,
and Hebrew was of no use for that purpose. But how kind and
generous-hearted he was! I have now before me a short note from him,
in which he says: "Do you want any money? This would be natural enough
in your position. My humble purse is at your service. I should like
to be able to offer you more precious gifts. I hope that my plain
and simple offer will not offend you." I declined his kind offer with
thanks, but there was no merit in my refusal, for my sister Henriette
had sent me twelve hundred francs to tide over this crisis. I scarcely
touched this sum, but nevertheless, by relieving me of any immediate
apprehension for the morrow, it was the foundation of the independence
and of the dignity of my whole life.

Thus, on the 6th of October, 1845, I went down, never again to remount
them in priestly dress, the steps of the St. Sulpice seminary. I
crossed the courtyard as quickly as I could, and went to the hotel
which then stood at the north-west corner of the esplanade, not at
that time thrown open, as it is now.

[Footnote 1: This has reference to a post of private tutor which was at my
disposal for a time.]

[Footnote 2: M. Dupanloup was no longer superior of the Petty Seminary
of Saint Nicholas du Chardonnet.]



The name of this hotel I do not remember; it was always spoken of as
"Mademoiselle Celeste's," this being the name of the worthy person who
managed or owned it.

There was certainly no other hotel like it in Paris, for it was a kind
of annex to the seminary, the rules of which were to a great extent
in force there. Lodgers were not admitted without a letter of
introduction from one of the directors of the seminary or some other
notability in the religious world. It was here that students who
wished for a few days to themselves before entering or leaving the
seminary used to stay, while priests and superiors of convents whom
business brought to Paris found it comfortable and inexpensive. The
transition from the priestly to the ordinary dress is like the change
which occurs in a chrysalis; it needs a little shade. Assuredly,
if any one could narrate all the silent and unobtrusive romances
associated with this ancient hotel, now pulled down, we should hear
some very interesting stories. I must not, however, let my meaning be
mistaken, for, like many ecclesiastics still alive, I can testify to
the blameless course of life in Mlle. Celeste's hotel.

While I was awaiting here the completion of my metamorphosis, M.
Carbon's good offices were being busily employed upon my behalf.
He had written to Abbe Gratry, at that time director of the College
Stanislas, and the latter offered me a place as usher in the upper
division. M. Dupanloup advised me to accept it, remarking: "You may
rest assured that M. Gratry is a priest of the highest distinction."
I accepted, and was very kindly treated by every one, but I did not
retain the place more than a fortnight. I found that my new situation
involved my making the outward profession of clericalism, the
avoidance of which was my reason for leaving the seminary. Thus my
relations with M. Gratry were but fleeting. He was a kindhearted
man, and a rather clever writer, but there was nothing in him. His
indecision of mind did not suit me at all, M. Carbon and M. Dupanloup
had told him why I had left St. Sulpice. We had two or three
conversations, in the course of which I explained to him my doubts,
based upon an examination of the texts. He did not in the least
understand me, and with his transcendentalism he must have looked upon
my rigid attention to details as very commonplace. He knew nothing of
ecclesiastical science, whether exegesis or theology; his capabilities
not extending beyond hollow phrases, trifling applications of
mathematics, and the region of "matter of fact." I was not slow to
perceive how immensely superior the theology of St. Sulpice was to
these hollow combinations which would fain pass muster as scientific.
St. Sulpice has a knowledge at first hand of what Christianity is;
the Polytechnic School has not. But I repeat, there could be no two
opinions as to the uprightness of M. Gratry, who was a very taking and
highminded man.

I was sorry to part company with him; but there was no help for it.
I had left the first seminary in the world for one in every respect
inferior to it. The leg had been badly set; I had the courage to break
it a second time. On the 2nd or 3rd of November, I passed from out the
last threshold appertaining to the Church, and I obtained a place
as "assistant master _au pair_"--to employ the phrase used in the
Quartier Latin of those days--without salary, in a school of the
St. Jacques district attached to the Lycee Henri IV. I had a small
bedroom, and took my meals with the scholars, and as my time was not
occupied for more than two hours a day, I was able to do a good deal
of work upon my own account. This was just what I wanted.



Constituted as I am to find my own company quite sufficient, the
humble dwelling in the Rue des Deux Eglises (now the Rue de l'Abbe
de l'Epee) would have been a paradise for me had it not been for
the terrible crisis which my conscience was passing through, and the
altered direction which I was compelled to give to my existence. The
fish in Lake Baikal have, it is said, taken thousands of years in
their transformation from salt to fresh water fish. I had to effect
my transition in a few weeks. Catholicism, like a fairy circle, casts
such a powerful spell upon one's whole life, that when one is deprived
of it everything seems aimless and gloomy. I felt terribly out of
my element. The whole universe seemed to me like an arid and chilly
desert. With Christianity untrue, everything else appeared to me
indifferent, frivolous, and undeserving of interest. The shattering of
my career left me with a sense of aching void, like what may be felt
by one who has had an attack of fever or a blighted affection. The
struggle which had engrossed my whole soul had been so ardent that
all the rest appeared to me petty and frivolous. The world discovered
itself to me as mean and deficient in virtue. I seemed to have lost
caste, and to have fallen upon a nest of pigmies.

My sorrow was much increased by the grief which I had been compelled
to inflict upon my mother. I resorted, perhaps wrongly, to certain
artifices with the view, as I hoped, of sparing her pain. Her letters
went to my heart. She supposed my position to be even more painful
than it was in reality, and as she had, despite our poverty, rather
spoilt me, she thought that I should never be able to withstand any
hardship. "When I remember how a poor little mouse kept you from
sleeping, I am at a loss to know how you will get on," she wrote to
me. She passed her time singing the Marseilles hymns,[1] of which she
was so fond, especially the hymn of Joseph, beginning--

"O Joseph, o mon aimable
Fils affable."

When she wrote to me in this strain, my heart was fit to break. As a
child, I was in the habit of asking her ten times over in the course
of the day--"Mother, have I been good?" The idea of a rupture between
us was most cruel. I accordingly resorted to various devices in order
to prove to her that I was still the same tender son that I had been
in the past. In time the wound healed, and when she saw that I was as
tender and loving towards her as ever, she readily agreed that there
might be more than one way of being a priest, and that nothing was
changed in me except the dress, which was the literal truth.

My ignorance of the world was thorough-paced. I knew nothing except
of literary matters, and as my only real knowledge was that which I
gained at St. Sulpice, I have always been like a child in all worldly
matters. I did not therefore make any effort to render my material
position as good as the circumstances admitted. The one object of life
seemed to me to be thought. The educational profession being the one
which comes nearest to the clerical one, I selected it almost without
reflection. It was hard, no doubt, after having reached the maximum
of intellectual culture, and having held a post of some honour,
to descend to the lowest rank. I was better versed than any living
Frenchman, with the exception of M. Le Hir, in the comparative theory
of the Semitic languages, and my position was no better than that of
an under-master; I was a savant, and I had not taken a degree. But
the inward contentment of my own conscience was enough for me. I
never felt a shadow of regret at the decision which I had come to in
October, 1845.

I had my reward, moreover, the day after I entered the humble school
in which I was to occupy for three years and a-half such a lowly
position. Among the pupils was one who, owing to his successes and
rapid progress, held a place of his own in the school. He was eighteen
years old, and even at that early age the philosophical spirit, the
concentrated ardour, the passionate love of truth, and the inventive
sagacity which have since made his name celebrated were apparent to
those who knew him. I refer to M. Berthelot, whose room was next to
mine. From the day that we knew each other, we became fast friends.
Our eagerness to learn was equally great, and we had both had very
different kinds of culture. We accordingly threw all that we knew
into the same seething cauldron which served to boil joints of very
different kinds. Berthelot taught me what was not to be learnt in the
seminary, while I taught him theology and Hebrew. Berthelot purchased
a Hebrew Bible, which, I believe, is still in his library with its
leaves uncut. He did not get much beyond the _Shevas_, the counter
attractions of the laboratory being too great. Our mutual honesty and
straightforwardness brought us closer together. Berthelot introduced
me to his father, one of those gifted doctors such as may be found in
Paris. The father was a Galilean of the old school, and very advanced
in his political views. He was the first Republican I had ever seen,
and it took me some time to familiarize myself with the idea. But
he was something more than that: he was a model of charity and
self-devotion. He assured the scientific career of his son by enabling
him to devote himself up to the age of thirty to his speculative
researches without having to obtain any remunerative post which would
have interfered with his studies. In politics, Berthelot remained true
to the principles of his father. This is the only point upon which
we have not always been agreed. For my part I should willingly resign
myself, if the opportunity arose (I must say that it seems to grow
more distant every day), to serve, for the greater good of
humanity now so sadly out of gear, a tyrant who was philanthropic,
well-instructed, intelligent, and liberal.

Our discussions were interminable, and we were always resuming the
same subject. We passed part of the night in searching out together
the topics upon which we were engaged. After some little time, M.
Berthelot, having completed his special mathematical studies at the
Lycee Henri IV., went back to his father, who lived at the foot of
the Tour Saint Jacques de la Boucherie. When he came to see me in the
evening at the Rue de l'Abbe de l'Epee, we used to converse for hours,
and then I used to walk back with him to the Tour Saint Jacques. But
as our conversation was rarely concluded when we got back to his
door, he returned with me, and then I went back with him, this game
of battledore and shuttlecock being renewed several times. Social and
philosophical questions must be very hard to solve, seeing that we
could not with all our energy settle them. The crisis of 1848 had a
very great effect upon us. This fateful year was not more successful
than we had been in solving the problems which it had set itself, but
it demonstrated the fragility of many things which were supposed to be
solid, and to young and active minds it seemed like the lowering of a
curtain of clouds upon the horizon.

The profound affection which thus bound M. Berthelot and myself
together was unquestionably of a very rare and singular kind. It
so happened that we were both of an essentially objective nature; a
nature, that is to say, perfectly free from the narrow whirlwind which
converts most consciences into an egotistical gulf like the conical
cavity of the formica-leo. Accustomed each to pay very little
attention to himself, we paid very little attention to one another.
Our friendship consisted in what we mutually learnt, in a sort of
common fermentation which a remarkable conformity of intellectual
organization produced in us in regard to the same objects. Anything
which we had both seen in the same light seemed to us a certainty.
When we first became acquainted, I still retained a tender attachment
for Christianity. Berthelot also inherited from his father a remnant
of Christian belief. A few months sufficed to relegate these vestiges
of faith to that part of our souls reserved for memory. The statement
that everything in the world is of the same colour, that there is no
special supernatural or momentary revelation, impressed itself upon
our minds as unanswerable. The scientific purview of a universe in
which there is no appreciable trace of any free will superior to that
of man became, from the first months of 1846, the immovable anchor
from which we never shifted. We shall never move from this position
until we shall have encountered in nature some one specially
intentional fact having its cause outside the free will of man or the
spontaneous action of the animal.

Thus our friendship was somewhat analogous to that of two eyes when
they look steadily at the same object, and when from two images the
brain receives one and the same perception. Our intellectual growth
was like the phenomenon which occurs through a sort of action due
to close contact and to passive complicity. M. Berthelot looked as
favourably upon what I did as myself; I liked his ways as much as
he could have done himself. There was never so much as a trivial
vulgarity--I will not say a moral slackening of affection--between us.
We were invariably upon the same terms with each other that people are
with a woman for whom they feel respect. When I want to typify what an
unexampled pair of friends we were, I always represent two priests
in their surplices walking arm in arm. This dress does not debar them
from discussing elevated subjects; but it would never occur to them
in such a dress to smoke a cigar, to talk about trifles, or to satisfy
the most legitimate requirements of the body. Flaubert, the novelist,
could never understand that, as Sainte-Beuve relates, the recluses of
Port Royal lived for years in the same house and addressed each other
as Monsieur to the day of their death. The fact of the matter is that
Flaubert had no sort of idea as to what abstract natures are. Not only
did nothing approaching to a familiarity ever pass between us, but
we should have hesitated to ask each other for help, or almost for
advice. To ask a service would, in our view, be an act of corruption,
an injustice towards the rest of the human race; it would, at all
events, be tantamount to acknowledging that there was something to
which we attached a value. But we are so well aware that the temporal
order of things is vain, empty, hollow, and frivolous, that we
hesitate at giving a tangible shape even to friendship. We have too
much regard for each other to be guilty of a weakness towards each
other. Both alike convinced of the insignificance of human affairs,
and possessed of the same aspirations for what is eternal, we could
not bring ourselves to admit having of a set purpose concentrated our
thoughts upon what is casual and accidental. For there can be no doubt
that ordinary friendship presupposes the conviction that all things
are not vain and empty.

Later in life an intimacy of this kind may at times cease to be felt
as a necessity. It recovers all its force whenever the globe of this
world, which is ever changing, brings round some new aspect with
regard to which we want to consult each other. Whichever of us dies
first will leave a great void in the existence of the other. Our
friendship reminds me of that of Francois de Sales and President
Favre: "They pass away these years of time, my brother, their months
are reduced to weeks, their weeks to days, their days to hours, and
their hours to moments, which latter alone we possess, and these only
as they fleet." The conviction of the existence of an eternal object
embraced in youth, gives a peculiar stability to life. All this is
anything but human or natural, you may say! No doubt, but strength is
only manifested by running counter to nature. The natural tree does
not bear good fruit. The fruit is not good until the tree is trained;
that is to say, until it has ceased to be a tree.

[Footnote 1: A collection of hymns of the sixteenth century, touching
in their simplicity. I have my mother's old copy; I may perhaps write
something about them hereafter.]



The friendship of M. Berthelot, and the approbation of my sister,
were my two chief consolations during this painful period, when the
sentiment of an abstract duty towards truth compelled me at the age
of three and twenty to alter the course of a career already fairly
entered upon. The change was, in reality, only one of domicile, and of
outward surroundings. At bottom I remained the same; the moral course
of my life was scarcely affected by this trial; the craving for truth,
which was the mainspring of my existence, knew no diminution. My
habits and ways were but very little modified.

St. Sulpice, in truth, had left its impress so deeply upon me, that
for years I remained a St. Sulpice man, not in regard to faith but in
habit. The excellent education imparted there, which had exhibited
to me the perfection of politeness in M. Gosselin, the perfection of
kindness in M. Carbon, the perfection of virtue in M. Pinault, M.
Le Hir and M. Gottofrey, made an indelible impression upon my docile
nature. My studies, prosecuted without interruption after I had left
the seminary, so completely confirmed me in my presumptions against
orthodox theology, that at the end of a twelvemonth, I could scarcely
understand how I had formerly been able to believe. But when faith has
disappeared, morality remains; for a long time, my programme was to
abandon as little as possible of Christianity, and to hold on to all
that could be maintained without belief in the supernatural. I sorted,
so to speak, the virtues of the St. Sulpice student, discarding those
which appertain to a positive belief, and retaining those of which
a philosopher can approve. Such is the force of habit. The void
sometimes has the same effect as its opposite. _Est pro corde locus_.
The fowl whose brain has been removed, will nevertheless, under the
influence of certain stimulants, continue to scratch its beak.

I endeavoured, therefore, on leaving St. Sulpice to remain as much of
a St. Sulpice man as possible. The studies which I had begun at the
seminary had so engrossed me, that my one desire was to resume them.
One only occupation seemed worthy to absorb my life, and that was the
pursuit of my critical researches upon Christianity by the much larger
means which lay science offered me. I also imagined myself to be
in the company of my teachers, discussing objections with them, and
proving to them that whole pages of ecclesiastical teaching require

For some little time, I kept up my relations with them, notably with
M. Le Hir, but I gradually came to feel that relations of this kind,
between the believer and the unbeliever, grow strained, and I broke
off an intimacy which could be profitable and pleasant to myself

In respect to matters of critique, I also held my ground as closely as
I possibly could, and thus it comes that, while being unrestrictedly
rationalist, I have none the less seemed a thorough conservative in
the discussions relating to the age and authenticity of Holy Writ. The
first edition of my _Histoire Generale des Langues Semitiques_, for
instance, contains so far as regards the book of Ecclesiastes and the
Song of Solomon, several concessions to traditional opinions which
I have since eliminated one after the other. In my _Origines du
Christianisme_, upon the other hand, this reserved attitude has stood
me in good stead, for in writing this essay, I had to face a very
exaggerated school--that of the Tuebingen Protestants--composed of men
devoid of literary tact and moderation, by whom, through the fault of
the Catholics, researches as to Jesus and the apostolic age have been
almost entirely monopolised. When a reaction sets in against this
school, it will be recognised perhaps that my critique, Catholic in
its origin, and by degrees freed from the shackles of tradition, has
enabled me to see many things in their true light, and has preserved
me from more than one mistake.

But it is in regard to my temperament, more especially, that I have
remained in reality the pupil of my old masters. My life, when I pass
it in review, has been one long application of their good qualities
and their defects; with this difference, that these qualities and
defects, having been transferred to the world's stage, have brought
out inconsistencies more strongly marked. All's well that ends well,
and as my existence has, upon the whole, been a pleasant one, I often
amuse myself, like Marcus Aurelius, by calculating how much I owe to
the various influences which have traversed my life, and woven the
tissue of it. In these calculations, St. Sulpice always comes out
as the principal factor. I can venture to speak very freely on this
point, for little of the credit is due to me. I was well trained, and
that is the secret of the whole matter. My amiability, which is in
many cases the result of indifference; my indulgency, which is sincere
enough, and is due to the fact that I see clearly how unjust men
are to one another; my conscientious habits, which afford me real
pleasure, and my infinite capacity for enduring ennui, attributable
perhaps to my having been so well inoculated by ennui during my youth
that it has never taken since, are all to be explained by the circle
in which I lived, and the profound impressions which I received. Since
I left St. Sulpice, I have been constantly losing ground, and yet,
with only a quarter the virtues of a St. Sulpice man, I have, I think,
been far above the average.

I should like to explain in detail and show how the paradoxical
resolve to hold fast to the clerical virtues, without the faith upon
which they are based, and in a world for which they are not designed,
produced so far as I was concerned, the most amusing encounters. I
should like to relate all the adventures which my Sulpician habits
brought about, and the singular tricks which they played me. After
leading a serious life for sixty years, mirth is no offence, and what
source of merriment can be more abundant, more harmless, and more
ready to hand than oneself? If a comedy writer should ever be inclined
to amuse the public by depicting my foibles I would readily give my
assent if he agreed to let me join him in the work, as I could relate
things far more amusing than any which he could invent. But I find
that I am transgressing the first rule which my excellent masters laid
down, viz., never to speak of oneself. I will therefore treat this
latter part of my subject very briefly.



The moral teaching inculcated by the pious masters who watched over me
so tenderly up to the age of three-and-twenty may be summed up in the
four virtues of disinterestedness or poverty, modesty, politeness,
and strict morality. I propose to analyse my conduct under these four
heads, not in any way with the intention of advertising my own merits,
but in order to give those who profess the philosophy of good-natured
scepticism an opportunity of exercising their powers of observation at
my expense.

I. Poverty is of all the clerical virtues the one which I have
practised the most faithfully. M. Olier had painted for his church
a picture in which St. Sulpice was represented as laying down the
fundamental rule of life for his clerks: _Habentes alimenta et quibus
tegamur, his contenti sumus_. This was just my idea, and I could
desire nothing better than to be provided with lodging, board, lights,
and firing, without any intervention of my own, by some one who
would charge me a fixed sum and leave me entirely my own master. The
arrangement which dated from my settlement in the little _pension_ of
the Faubourg St. Jacques was destined to become the economic basis of
my whole life. One or two private lessons which I gave saved me from
the necessity of breaking into the twelve hundred francs sent me by my
sister. This was just the rule laid down and observed by my masters
at Treguier and St. Sulpice: _Victum vestitum_, board and lodging and
just enough money to buy a new cassock once a year. I had never wished
for anything more myself. The modest competence which I now possess
only fell to my share later in life, and quite independently of my
own volition. I look upon the world at large as belonging to me, but
I only spend the interest of my capital. I shall depart this life
without having possessed anything save "that which it is usual to
consume," according to the Franciscan code. Whenever I have been
tempted to buy some small plot of ground, an inward voice has
prevented me. To have done so would have seemed to me gross, material,
and opposed to the principle: _Non habemus hic manentem civitatem_.
Securities are lighter, more ethereal, and more fragile; they do not
exercise the same amount of attachment, and there is more risk of
losing them.

At the present rate this is a bitter contradiction, and though the
rule which I have followed has given me happiness, I would not advise
any one to adopt it. I am too old to change now, and besides I have
nothing to complain of; but I should be afraid of misleading young
people if I told them to do the same. To get the most one can out of
oneself is becoming the rule of the world at large. The idea that the
nobleman is the man who does not make money, and that any commercial
or industrial pursuit, no matter how honest, debases the person
engaged in it, and prevents him from belonging to the highest circle
of humanity is fast fading away. So great is the difference which an
interval of forty years brings about in human affairs. All that I once
did now appears sheer folly, and sometimes in looking around me I fail
to recognise that it is the same world.

The man whose life is devoted to immaterial pursuits is a child in
worldly affairs; he is helpless without a guardian. The world in which
we live is wide enough for every place which is worth taking to be
occupied; every post to be held creates, so to speak, the person to
fill it. I had never imagined that the product of my thought could
have any market value. I had always had an idea of writing, but it
had never occurred to me that it would bring me in any money. I was
greatly astonished, therefore, when a man of pleasant and intelligent
appearance called upon me in my garret one day, and, after
complimenting me upon several articles which I had written, offered
to publish them in a collected form. A stamped agreement which he had
with him specified terms which seemed to me so wonderfully liberal
that when he asked me if all my future writings should be included
in the agreement, I gave my assent. I was tempted to make one or
two observations, but the sight of the stamp stopped me, and I was
unwilling that so fine a piece of paper should be wasted. I did well
to forego them, for M. Michel Levy must have been created by a special
decree of Providence to be my editor. A man of letters who has any
self-respect should write in only one journal and in one review, and
should have only one publisher. M. Michel Levy and myself always got
on very well together. At a subsequent date, he pointed out to me that
the agreement which he had prepared was not sufficiently remunerative
for me, and he substituted for it one much more to my advantage. I am
told that he has not made a bad speculation out of me. I am delighted
to hear it. In any event, I may safely say that if I possessed a fund
of literary wealth it was only fair that he should have a large share
of it, as but for him I should never have suspected its existence.

II. It is very difficult to prove that one is modest, for the very
assertion of one's modesty destroys one's claim to it. As I have said,
our old Christian teachers had an excellent rule upon this score,
which was never to speak of oneself either in praise or depreciation.
This is the true principle, but the general reader will not have
it so, and is the cause of all the mischief. He leads the writer to
commit faults upon which he is afterwards very hard, just as the staid
middle classes of another age applauded the actor, and yet excluded
him from the Church. "Incur your own damnation, as long as you amuse
us" is often the sentiment which lurks beneath the encouragement,
often flattering in appearance, of the public. Success is more often
than not acquired by our defects. When I am very well pleased with
what I have written, I have perhaps nine or ten persons who approve
of what I have said. When I cease to keep a strict watch upon myself,
when my literary conscience hesitates, and my hand shakes, thousands
are anxious for me to go on.

But notwithstanding all this, and making due allowance for venial
faults, I may safely claim that I have been modest, and in this
respect, at all events, I have not come short of the St. Sulpice
standard. I am not afflicted with literary vanity. I do not fall into
the error which distinguishes the literary views of our day. I am well
assured that no really great man has ever imagined himself to be one,
and that those who during their lifetime browse upon their glory while
it is green, do not garner it ripe after their death. I only feigned
to set store by literature for a time to please M. Sainte-Beuve who
had great influence over me. Since his death, I have ceased to attach
any value to it. I see plainly enough that talent is only prized
because people are so childish. If the public were wise, they would
be content with getting the truth. What they like is in most cases
imperfections. My adversaries, in order to deny me the possession
of other qualities which interfere with their apologeticum, are so
profuse in their allowance of talent to me that I need not scruple
to accept an encomium which, coming from them, is a criticism. In any
event, I have never sought to gain anything by the display of this
inferior quality, which has been more prejudicial to me as a _savant_
than it has been useful of itself. I have not based any calculations
upon it. I have never counted upon my supposed talent for a
livelihood, and I have not in any way tried to turn it to account.
The late M. Beule, who looked upon me with a kind of good-natured
curiosity mingled with astonishment, could not understand why I made
so little use of it. I have never been at all a literary man. In the
most decisive moments of my life I had not the least idea that my
prose would secure any success.

I have never done anything to foster my success, which, if I may be
permitted to say so, might have been much greater if I had so willed.
I have in no wise followed up my good fortune; upon the contrary, I
have rather tried to check it. The public likes a writer who sticks
closely to his line, and who has his own specialty; placing but little
confidence in those who try to shine in contradictory subjects. I
could have secured an immense amount of popularity if I had gone in
for a _crescendo_ of anti-clericalism after the _Vie de Jesus_. The
general reader likes a strong style. I could easily have left in the
flourishes and tinsel phrases which excite the enthusiasm of those
whose taste is not of a very elevated kind, that is to say, of the
majority. I spent a year in toning down the style of the _Vie de
Jesus_, as I thought that such a subject could not be treated
too soberly or too simply. And we know how fond the masses are of
declamation. I have never accentuated my opinions in order to gain the
ear of my readers. It is no fault of mine if, owing to the bad taste
of the day, a slender voice has made itself heard athwart the darkness
in which we dwell, as if reverberated by a thousand echoes.

III. With regard to my politeness, I shall find fewer cavillers than
with regard to my modesty, for, so far as mere externals go, I have
been endowed with much more of the former than of the latter. The
extreme urbanity of my old masters made so great an impression upon
me that I have never broken away from it. Theirs was the true French
politeness; that which is shown not only towards acquaintances but
towards all persons without exception.[1] Politeness of this kind
implies a general standard of conduct, without which life cannot, as I
hold, go on smoothly; viz. that every human creature should, be given
credit for goodness failing proof to the contrary, and treated kindly.
Many people, especially in certain countries, follow the opposite
rule, and this leads to great injustice. For my own part, I cannot
possibly be severe upon any one _a priori_. I take for granted that
every person I see for the first time is a man of merit and of good
repute, reserving to myself the right to alter my opinions (as I often
have to do) if facts compel me to do so. This is the St. Sulpice rule,
which, in my contact with the outside world, has placed me in very
singular positions, and has often made me appear very old-fashioned,
a relic of the past, and unfamiliar with the age in which we live. The
right way to behave at table is to help oneself to the worst piece in
the dish, so as to avoid the semblance of leaving for others what
one does not think good enough--or, better still, to take the piece
nearest to one without looking at what is in the dish. Any one who
was to act in this delicate way in the struggle of modern life,
would sacrifice himself to no purpose. His delicacy would not even
be noticed. "First come, first served," is the objectionable rule of
modern egotism. To obey, in a world which has ceased to have any heed
of civility, the excellent rules of the politeness of other days,
would be tantamount to playing the part of a dupe, and no one would
thank you for your pains. When one feels oneself being pushed by
people who want to get in front of one, the proper thing to do is to
draw back with a gesture tantamount to saying: "Do not let me prevent
you passing." But it is very certain that any one who adhered to this
rule in an omnibus would be the victim of his own deference; in fact,
I believe that he would be infringing the bye-laws. In travelling by
rail, how few people seem to see that in trying to force their way
before others on the platform in order to secure the best seats, they
are guilty of gross discourtesy.

In other words, our democratic machines have no place for the man of
polite manners. I have long since given up taking the omnibus; the
conductor came to look upon me as a passenger who did not know what
he was about. In travelling by rail, I invariably have the worst seat,
unless I happen to get a helping hand from the station-master. I was
fashioned for a society based upon respect, in which people could be
treated, classified, and placed according to their costume, and in
which they would not have to fight for their own hand. I am only at
home at the Institute or the College de France, and that because our
officials are all well-conducted men and hold us in great respect. The
Eastern habit of always having a _cavass_ to walk in front of one in
the public thoroughfares suited me very well; for modesty is seasoned
by a display of force. It is agreeable to have under one's orders
a man armed with a kourbash which one does not allow him to use. I
should not at all mind having the power of life and death without ever
exercising it, and I should much like to own some slaves in order to
be extremely kind to them and to make them adore me.

IV. My clerical ideas have exercised a still greater influence over
me in all that relates to the rules of morality. I should have looked
upon it as a lack of decorum if I had made any change in my austere
habits upon this score. The world at large, in its ignorance of
spiritual things, believes that men only abandon the ecclesiastical
calling because they find its duties too severe. I should never have
forgiven myself if I had done anything to lend even a semblance of
reason to views so superficial. With my extreme conscientiousness
I was anxious to be at rest with myself, and I continued to live in
Paris the life which I had led in the seminary. As time went on, I
recognised that this virtue was as vain as all the others; and more
especially I noted that nature does not in the least encourage man
to be chaste. I none the less persevered in the mode of life I had
selected, and I deliberately imposed upon myself the morals of a
Protestant clergyman. A man should never take two liberties with
popular prejudice at the same time. The freethinker should be very
particular as to his morals. I know some Protestant ministers, very
broad in their ideas, whose stiff white ties preserve them from all
reproach. In the same way I have, thanks to a moderate style and
blameless morals, secured a hearing for ideas which, in the eyes of
human mediocrity, are advanced.

The worldly views in regard to the relations between the sexes are as
peculiar as the biddings of nature itself. The world, whose; judgments
are rarely altogether wrong, regards it as more or less ridiculous
to be virtuous, when one is not obliged to be so as a matter of
professional duty. The priest, whose place it is to be chaste as it
is that of the soldier to be brave, is, according to this view,
almost the only person who can, without incurring ridicule, stand by
principles over which morality and fashion are so often at variance.
There can be no doubt that, upon this point, as on many others,
adherence to my clerical principles has been injurious to me in the
eyes of the world. These principles have not affected my happiness.
Women have, as a rule, understood how much respect and sympathy for
them my affectionate reserve implied. In fine, I have been beloved by
the four women whose love was of the most comfort to me: My mother,
my sister, my wife and my daughter. I have had the better part, and it
will not be taken from me, for I often fancy that the judgments which
will be passed upon us in the valley of Jehosophat, will be neither
more nor less than those of women, countersigned by the Almighty.

Thus it may, upon the whole, be said that I have come short in little
of my clerical promises. I have exchanged spirituality for ideality.
I have been truer to my engagements than many priests apparently more
regular in their conduct. In resolutely clinging to the virtues of
disinterestedness, politeness, and modesty in a world to which they
are not applicable I have shown how very simple I am. I have never
courted success; I may almost say that it is distasteful to me. The
pleasure of living and of working is quite enough for me. Whatever may
be egotistical in this way of engaging the pleasure of existence is
neutralized by the sacrifices which I believe that I have made for the
public good. I have always been at the orders of my country; at the
first sign from it, in 1869, I placed myself at its disposal. I might
perhaps have rendered it some service; the country did not think so,
but I have done my part. I have never flattered the errors of public
opinion; and I have been so careful not to lose a single opportunity
of pointing out these errors, that superficial persons have regarded
me as wanting in patriotism. One is not called upon to descend to
charlatanism or falsehood to obtain a mandate, the main condition of
which is independence and sincerity. Amidst the public misfortunes
which may be in store for us, my conscience will, therefore, be quite
at rest.

All things considered, I should not, if I had to begin my life
over again, with the right of making what erasures I liked, change
anything. The defects of my nature and education have, by a sort of
benevolent Providence, been so attenuated and reduced as to be of very
little moment. A certain apparent lack of frankness in my relations
with them is forgiven me by my friends, who attribute it to my
clerical education. I must admit that in the early part of my life I
often told untruths, not in my own interest, but out of good-nature
and indifference, upon the mistaken idea which always induces me to
take the view of the person with whom I may be conversing. My sister
depicted to me in very vivid colours the drawbacks involved in acting
like this, and I have given up doing so. I am not aware of having told
a single untruth since 1851, with the exception, of course, of the
harmless stories and polite fibs which all casuists permit, as also
the literary evasions which, in the interests of a higher truth, must
be used to make up a well-poised phrase, or to avoid a still greater
misfortune--that of stabbing an author. Thus, for instance, a poet
brings you some verses. You must say that they are admirable, for if
you said less it would be tantamount to describing them as worthless,
and to inflicting a grievous insult upon a man who intended to show
you a polite attention.

My friends may have well found it much more difficult to forgive me
another defect, which consists in being rather slow not to show them
affection but to render them assistance. One of the injunctions most
impressed upon us at the seminary was to avoid "special friendships."
Friendships of this kind were described as being a fraud upon the rest
of the community. This rule has always remained indelibly impressed
upon my mind. I have never given much encouragement to friendship; I
have done little for my friends, and they have done little for me. One
of the ideas which I have so often to cope with is that friendship, as
it is generally understood, is an injustice and a blunder, which only
allows you to distinguish the good qualities of a single person, and
blinds you to those of others who are perhaps more deserving of your
sympathy. I fancy to myself at times, like my ancient masters, that
friendship is a larceny committed at the expense of society at large,
and that, in a more elevated world, friendship would disappear. In
some cases, it has seemed to me that the special attachment which
unites two individuals is a slight upon good-fellowship generally; and
I am always tempted to hold aloof from them as being warped in their
judgment and devoid of impartiality and liberty. A close association
of this kind between two persons must, in my view, narrow the
mind, detract from anything like breadth of view, and fetter the
independence. Beule often used to banter me upon this score. He was
somewhat attached to me, and was anxious to render me a service,
though I had not done the equivalent for him. Upon a certain
occasion I voted against him in favour of some one who had been very
ill-natured towards me, and he said to me afterwards: "Renan, I shall
play some mean trick upon you; out of impartiality you will vote for

While I have been very fond of my friends, I have done very little for
them. I have been as much at the disposal of the public as of them.
This is why I receive so many letters from unknown and anonymous
correspondents; and this is also why I am such a bad correspondent. It
has often happened to me while writing a letter to break off suddenly
and convert into general terms the ideas which have occurred to me.
The best of my life has been lived for the public, which has had all I
have to give. There is no surprise in store for it after my death, as
I have kept nothing back for anybody.

Having thus given my preference instinctively to the many rather than
to the few, I have enjoyed the sympathy even of my adversaries, but I
have had few friends. No sooner has there been any sign of warmth in
my feelings, than the St. Sulpice dictum, "No special friendships,"
has acted as a refrigerator, and stood in the way of any close
affinity. My craving to be just has prevented me from being obliging.
I am too much impressed by the idea that in doing one person a service
you as a rule disoblige another person; that to further the chances
of one competitor is very often equivalent to an injury upon another.
Thus the image of the unknown person whom I am about to injure brings
my zeal to a sudden check. I have obliged hardly any one; I have never
learnt how people succeed in obtaining the management of a tobacco
shop for those in whom they are interested. This has caused me to be
devoid of influence in the world, but from a literary point of view
it has been a good thing for me. Merimee would have been a man of the
very highest mark if he had not had so many friends. But his friends
took complete possession of him. How can a man write private letters
when it is in his power to address himself to all the world. The
person to whom you write reduces your talent; you are obliged to write
down to his level. The public has a broader intelligence than any one
person. There are a great many fools, it is true, among the "all," but
the "all" comprises as well the few thousand clever men and women for
whom alone the world may be said to exist. It is in view of them that
one should write.

[Footnote 1: I will add towards animals as well. I could not possibly
behave unkindly to a dog, or treat him roughly, and with an air of



I now bring to a conclusion these _Recollections_ by asking the reader
to forgive the irritating fault into which writing of this kind leads
one in every sentence. Vanity is so deep in its secret calculations
that even when frankly criticising himself the writer is liable to the
suspicion of not being quite open and above board. The danger in such
a case is that he will, with unconscious artfulness, humbly confess,
as he can do without much merit, to trifling and external defects so
as indirectly to ascribe to himself very high qualities. The demon
of vanity is, assuredly, a very subtle one, and I ask myself whether
perchance I have fallen a victim to it. If men of taste reproach me
with having shown myself to be a true representative of the age while
pretending not to be so, I beg them to rest well assured that this
will not happen to me again.

Claudite jam rivos, pueri; sat prata biberunt

I have too much work before me to amuse myself in a way which many
people will stigmatise as frivolous. My mother's family at Lannion,
from which I have inherited my disposition, has supplied several cases
of longevity; but certain recurrent symptoms lead me to believe that
so far as I am concerned I shall not furnish another. I shall thank
God that it is so, if I am thus spared years of decadence and loss of
power, which are the only things I dread. At all events, the remainder
of my life will be devoted to a research of the pure objective truth.
Should these be the last lines in which I am given an opportunity of
addressing myself to the public, I may be allowed to thank them for
the intelligent and sympathetic way in which they have supported me.
In former times the most that a man who went out of the beaten track
could expect was that he would be tolerated. My age and country have
been much more indulgent for me. Despite his many defects and his
humble origin, the son of peasants and of lowly sailors, trebly
ridiculous as a deserter from the seminary, an unfrocked clerk and a
case-hardened pedant, was from the first well-received, listened to,
and ever made much of, simply because he spoke with sincerity. I have
had some ardent opponents, but I have never had a personal enemy. The
only two objects of my ambition, admission to the Institute and to the
College de France, have been gratified. France has allowed me to share
the favours which she reserves for all that is liberal: her admirable
language, her glorious literary tradition, her rules of tact, and the
audience which she can command. Foreigners, too, have aided me in
my task as much as my own country, and I shall carry to my grave a
feeling of affection for Europe as well as for France, to whom I would
at times go on my knees and entreat not to divide her own household
by fratricidal jealousy, nor to forget her duty and her common task,
which is civilization.

Nearly all the men with whom I have had anything to do have been
extremely kind to me. When I first left the seminary, I traversed,
as I have said, a period of solitude, during which my sole support
consisted of my sister's letters and my conversations with M.
Berthelot; but I soon met with encouragement in every direction. M.
Egger became, from the beginning of 1846, my friend and my guide in
the difficult task of proving, rather late in the day, what I could
do in the way of classics. Eugene Burnouf, after perusing a very
defective essay which I wrote for the Volney Prize in 1847, chose me
as a pupil. M. and Mme. Adolphe Garnier were extremely kind to me.
They were a charming couple, and Madame Garnier, radiant with grace
and devoid of affectation, first inspired me with admiration for a
kind of beauty from which theology had sequestered me. With M. Victor
Le Clerc I had brought before my eyes all those qualities of study and
methodical application which distinguished my former teachers. I had
learnt to like him from the time of my residence at St. Sulpice: he
was the only layman whom the directors of the seminary valued, and
they envied him his remarkable ecclesiastical erudition. M. Cousin,
though he more than once displayed friendliness for me, was too
closely surrounded by disciples for me to try and force my way
through such a crowd, which was somewhat subservient to their master's
utterances. M. Augustin Thierry, upon the other hand, was, in the true
sense of the word, a spiritual father for me. His advice is ever in my
thoughts, and I have him to thank for having kept clear in my style
of writing from certain very ungainly defects which I should not have
discovered for myself. It was through him that I made the acquaintance
of the Scheffer family, whom I have to thank for a companion who has
always assorted herself so harmoniously to my somewhat contracted
conditions of life that I am at times tempted, when I reflect upon so
many fortunate coincidences, to believe in predestination.

According to my philosophy, which regards the world in its entirety as
full of a divine afflation, there is no place for individual will in
the government of the universe. Individual Providence, in the sense
formerly attached to it, has never been proved by any unmistakable
fact. But for this, I should assuredly be thankful to yield to a
combination of circumstances in which a mind, less subjugated than
my own by general reasoning, would detect the traces of the special
protection of benevolent deities. The play of chances which brings
up a ternion or a quaternion is nothing compared to what has been
required to prevent the combination of which I am reaping the fruits
from being disturbed. If my origin had been less lowly in the eyes
of the world, I should not have entered or persevered upon that royal
road of the intellectual life to which my early training for the
priesthood attached me. The displacement of a single atom would have
broken the chain of fortuitous facts which, in the remote district
of Brittany, was preparing me for a privileged life; which brought
me from Brittany to Paris; which, when I was in Paris, took me to the
establishment of all others where the best and most solid education
was to be had; which, when I left the seminary, saved me from two or
three mistakes which would have been the ruin of me; which, when I was
on my travels, extricated me from certain dangers that, according to
the doctrine of chances, would have been fatal to me; which, to cite
one special instance, brought Dr. Suquet over from America to rescue
me from the jaws of death which were yawning to swallow me up.
The only conclusion I would fain draw from all this is that the
unconscious effort towards what is good and true in the universe has
its throw of the dice through the intermediary of each one of us.
There is no combination but what comes up, quaternions like any other.
We may disarrange the designs of Providence in respect to ourselves;
but we have next to no influence upon their accomplishment. _Quid
habes quod non accepisti_? The dogma of grace is the truest of all the
Christian dogmas.

My experience of life has, therefore, been very pleasant; and I do
not think that there are many human beings happier than I am. I have
a keen liking for the universe. There may have been moments when
subjective scepticism has gained a hold upon me, but it never made me
seriously doubt of the reality, and the objections which it has evoked
are sequestered by me as it were within an inclosure of forgetfulness;
I never give them any thought, my peace of mind is undisturbed. Then,
again, I have found a fund of goodness in nature and in society.
Thanks to the remarkable good luck which has attended me all my life,
and always thrown me into communication with very worthy men, I have
never had to make sudden changes in my attitudes. Thanks, also, to
an almost unchangeable good temper, the result of moral healthiness,
which is itself the result of a well-balanced mind, and of tolerably
good bodily health, I have been able to indulge in a quiet philosophy,
which finds expression either in grateful optimism or playful irony.
I have never gone through much suffering. I might even be tempted to
think that nature has more than once thrown down cushions to break the
fall for me. Upon one occasion, when my sister died, nature literally
put me under chloroform, to save me a sight which would perhaps have
created a severe lesion in my feelings, and have permanently affected
the serenity of my thought.

Thus, I have to thank some one; I do not exactly know whom. I have
had so much pleasure out of life that I am really not justified in
claiming a compensation beyond the grave. I have other reasons for
being irritated at death: he is levelling to a degree which annoys
me; he is a democrat, who attacks us with dynamite; he ought, at all
events, to await our convenience and be at our call. I receive many
times in the course of the year an anonymous letter, containing the
following words, always in the same handwriting: "If there should be
such a place as hell after all?" No doubt the pious person who
writes to me is anxious for the salvation of my soul, and I am deeply
thankful for the same. But hell is a hypothesis very far from being in
conformity with what we know from other sources of the divine mercy.
Moreover, I can lay my hand on my heart and say that if there is such
a place I do not think that I have done anything which would consign
me to it. A short stay in purgatory would, perhaps, be just; I would
take the chance of this, as there would be Paradise afterwards, and
there would be plenty of charitable persons to secure indulgences,
by which my sojourn would be shortened. The infinite goodness which
I have experienced in this world inspires me with the conviction
that eternity is pervaded by a goodness not less infinite, in which I
repose unlimited trust.

All that I have now to ask of the good genius which has so often
guided, advised, and consoled me is a calm and sudden death at my
appointed hour, be it near or distant. The Stoics maintained that one
might have led a happy life in the belly of the bull of Phalaris.
This is going too far. Suffering degrades, humiliates, and leads to
blasphemy. The only acceptable death is the noble death, which is not
a pathological accident, but a premeditated and precious end before
the Everlasting. Death upon the battle-field is the grandest of all;
but there are others which are illustrious. If at times I may have
conceived the wish to be a senator, it is because I fancy that
this function will, within some not distant interval, afford fine
opportunities of being knocked on the head or shot--forms of death
which are very preferable to a long illness, which kills you by inches
and demolishes you bit by bit. God's will be done! I have little
chance of adding much to my store of knowledge; I have a pretty
accurate idea of the amount of truth which the human mind can, in the
present stage of its development, discern. I should be very grieved to
have to go through one of those periods of enfeeblement during which
the man once endowed with strength and virtue is but the shadow and
ruin of his former self; and often, to the delight of the ignorant,
sets himself to demolish the life which he had so laboriously
constructed. Such an old age is the worst gift which the gods can
give to man. If such a fate be in store for me, I hasten to protest
beforehand against the weaknesses which a softened brain might lead
me to say or sign. It is the Renan, sane in body and in mind, as I am
now--not the Renan half destroyed by death and no longer himself, as
I shall be if my decomposition is gradual--whom I wish to be believed
and listened to. I disavow the blasphemies to which in my last hour I
might give way against the Almighty. The existence which was given me
without my having asked for it has been a beneficent one for me. Were
it offered to me, I would gladly accept it over again. The age in
which I have lived will not probably count as the greatest, but it
will doubtless be regarded as the most amusing. Unless my closing
years have some very cruel trials in store, I shall have, in bidding
farewell to life, to thank the cause of all good for the delightful
excursion through reality which I have been enabled to make.


This volume was already in the press, when Abbe Cognat published in
the _Correspondant_ (January 25th, 1883) the letters which I wrote to
him in 1845 and 1846.[1] As several of my friends told me that they
had found them very interesting, I reproduce them here just as they
were published.

Treguier, _August 14th, 1845._

My dear friend,

Few events of importance have occurred, but many thoughts and feelings
have crowded in upon me since the day we parted. I am all the more
glad to impart them to you because there is no one else to whom I can
confide them. I am not alone, it is true, when I am with my mother;
but there are many things that my tender regard for her compels me
to keep back, and which, for the matter of that, she would not

Nothing has occurred to advance the solution of the important problem of
which, as is only natural, my mind is full. I have learnt nothing more,
unless it be the immensity of the sacrifice which God required of me. A
thousand painful details which I had never thought of have cropped up,
with the effect of complicating the situation, and of showing me that
the course dictated me by my conscience opened up a future of endless
trouble. I should have to enter into long and painful details to make
you understand exactly what I mean; and it must suffice if I tell you
that the obstacles of which we have on various occasions spoken are as
nothing by comparison with those which have suddenly started up before
me. It was no small thing to brave an opinion which would, one knew, be
very hard upon one, and to live on for long years an arduous life
leading to one knew not what; but the sacrifice was not then
consummated. God enjoins me to pierce with my own hand a heart upon
which all the affection there is in my own has been poured out. Filial
love had absorbed in me all the other affections of which I was capable,
and which God did not bring into play within me. Moreover, there existed
between my mother and myself many ties arising from a thousand
impalpable details which can be better felt than described. This was the
most painful part of the sacrifice which God required of me. I have
hitherto only spoken to her about Germany, and that is enough to make
her very unhappy. I tremble to think of what will happen when she knows
all. Her tender caresses go to my very heart, as do her plans for my
future, of which she is ever talking to me, and in which I have not the
courage to disappoint her. She is standing close to me as I write this
to you. Did she but know! I would sacrifice everything to her except my
duty and my conscience. Yes, if God exacted of me, in order to spare her
this pain, that I should extinguish my thought and condemn myself to a
plodding, vulgar existence, I would submit. Many a time I have
endeavoured to deceive myself, but it is not in human power to believe
or not to believe at will. I wish that I could stifle within me the
faculty of self-examination, for it is this which has caused all my
unhappiness. Fortunate are the children who all their life long do but
sleep and dream! I see around me men of pure and simple lives whom
Christianity has had the power to make virtuous and happy. But I have
noticed that none of them have the critical faculty; for which let them
bless God!

I cannot tell you to what an extent I am spoilt and made much of here,
and it is this which grieves me so. Did they but know what is
passing in my heart! I am fearful at times lest my conduct may be
hypocritical, but I have satisfied my conscience in this respect. God
forbid that I should be a cause of scandal to these simple souls!

When I see in what an inextricable net God has involved me while I
was asleep, I am unable to resist fatalistic thoughts, and I may often
have sinned in that respect; yet I never have doubted my Father which
is in Heaven or His goodness. Upon the contrary, I have always given
Him thanks, and have never felt myself nearer to Him than at moments
like those. The heart learns only by suffering, and I believe with
Kant that God is only to be known through the heart. Then too I was
a Christian, and resolved ever to remain one. But can orthodoxy be
critical? Had I but been born a German Protestant, for then I should
have been in my proper place! Herder ended his days a bishop, and he
was only just a Christian; but in the Catholic religion you must be
orthodox. Catholicism is a bar of iron, and will not admit anything
like reasoning.

Forgive me, my dear friend, the wish which I have just expressed and
which does not even come from that part in me which still believes
without knowing. You must, in order to be orthodox, believe that I am
reduced to my present condition by my own fault; and that is very hard.
Nevertheless, I am quite disposed to think that it is to a great extent
my own fault. He who knows his own heart will always answer, "Yes," when
he is told, "It is your own fault." Nothing of all that has happened to
me is easier for me to admit than that. I will not be as obstinate as
Job with regard to my own innocence. However pure of offence I might
believe myself to be, I would only pray God to have pity on me. The
perusal of the Book of Job delights me; for in this Book is to be found
poetry in its most divine form. The Book of Job renders palpable the
mysteries which one feels within one's own heart, and to which one has
been painfully endeavouring to give tangible shape.

None the less do I resolutely continue to follow out my thoughts.
Nothing will induce me to abandon this, even if I should be compelled
to appear to sacrifice it to the earning of my daily bread. God had,
in order to sustain me in my resolve, reserved for this critical
moment an event of real significance from the intellectual and moral
standpoint. I have studied Germany, and it has seemed to me that I
have been entering some holy place. All that I have lighted upon in
the course of the study is pure, elevating, moral, beautiful,
and touching. Oh! My Soul! Yes, it is a real treasure, and the
continuation of Jesus Christ. Their moral qualities excite my
liveliest admiration. How strong and gentle they are! I believe that
it is in this direction that we must look for the advent of Christ I
regard this apparition of a new spirit as analogous to the birth of
Christianity, except as to the difference of form. But this is of
little importance, for it is certain that when the event which is
to renovate the world shall recur, it will not in the mode of
its accomplishment resemble that which has already occurred. I am
attentively following the wave of enthusiasm which is at this moment
spreading over the north. M. Cousin has just started to study its
progress for himself, I am referring to Ronge and Czerski, whose names
you must have heard mentioned. May God pardon me for liking them, even
if they should not be pure: for what I like in them, as in all others
who have evoked my enthusiasm, is a certain standard of attractiveness
and morality which I have assigned them; in short, I admire in them my
ideal. It may be asked whether or not they come up to this standard.
That to my mind is quite a secondary matter.

Yes, Germany delights me, not so much in her scientific as in her
moral aspect. The _morale_ of Kant is far superior to all his logic
and intellectual philosophy, and our French writers have never alluded
to it. This is only natural, for the men of our day have no moral
sense. France seems to me every day more devoid of any part in the
great work of renovating the life of humanity. A dry, anti-critical,
barren, and petty orthodoxy, of the St. Sulpice type; a hollow and
superficial imitation full of affectation and exaggeration, like
Neo-Catholicism; and an arid and heartless philosophy, crabbed and
disdainful, like the University, make up the sum of French culture.
Jesus Christ is nowhere to be found. I have been inclined to think
that He would come to us from Germany; not that I suppose He would be
an individual, but a spirit. And when we use the word Jesus Christ we
mean, no doubt, a certain spirit rather than an individual, and that
is the Gospel. Not that I believe that this apparition is likely
to bring about either an upset or a discovery; Jesus Christ neither
overturned nor discovered anything. One must be Christian, but it is
impossible to be orthodox. What is needed is a pure Christianity. The
archbishop will be inclined to believe this; he is capable of founding
pure Christianity in France. I apprehend that one result of the
tendency among the French clergy to study and gain instruction will be
to rationalise us a little. In the first place they will get tired
of scholasticism, and when that has been got rid of there will be a
change in the form of ideas, and it will be seen that the orthodox
interpretation of the Bible does not hold water. But this will not
be effected without a struggle, for your orthodox people are very
tenacious in their dogmatism, and they will apply to themselves a
certain quantity of Athanasian varnish which will close their eyes and
ears. Yes, I should much like to be there! And I am about, it may be,
to cut off my arms, for the priests will be all powerful yet a while,
and it may well be that there will be nothing to be done without being
a priest, as Ronge and Czerski were. I have read a letter to Czerski
from his mother, in which she reminds him of the sacrifices she had
made for his clerical education and entreats him to remain staunch to
Catholicism. But how can he serve it more sincerely than by devoting
himself to what he believes to be the truth?

Forgive me, my dear friend, for what I have just said to you. If you
only knew the state of my head and my heart! Do not imagine that all
this has assumed a dogmatic consistency within me; so far from that,
I am the reverse of exclusive. I am willing to admit counter-evidence,
at all events for the time. Is it not possible to conceive a state of
things during which the individual and humanity are perforce exposed
to instability? You may answer that this is an untenable position for
them. Yes, but how can it be helped? It was necessary at one period
that people should be sceptical from a scientific point of view as to
morality, and yet, at this same period, men of pure minds could be
and were moral, at the risk of being inconsistent. The disciples of
scholasticism would mock at this, and triumphantly point to it as a
blunder in logic. It is easy to prove what is patent to every one.
Their idea is a moral state in which every detail has its set formula,
and they care little about the substance as long as the outward form
is perfect. They know neither man nor humanity as they really exist.

Yes, my dear friend, I still believe; I pray and recite the Lord's
Prayer with ecstasy. I am very fond of being in church, where the pure
and simple piety moves me deeply in the lucid moments when I inhale
the odour of God. I even have devotional fits, and I believe that they
will last, for piety is of value even when it is merely psychological.
It has a moralising effect upon us, and raises us above wretched
utilitarian preoccupations; for where ends utilitarianism there begins
the beautiful, the infinite, and Almighty God; and the pure air wafted
thence is life itself.

I am taken here for a good little seminarist, very pious and
tractable. This is not my fault, but it grieves me now and again, for
I am so afraid of appearing not to be straightforward. Yet I do not
feign anything, God knows; I merely do not say all I feel. Should I do
better to enter upon these wretched controversies, in which they would
have the advantage of being the champions of the beautiful and the
pure, and in which I should have the appearance of assimilating myself
to all that is most vile? for anti-Christianity has in this country so
low, detestable, and revolting an aspect that I am repelled from it if
only by natural modesty. And then they know nothing whatever about
the matter. I cannot be blamed for not speaking to them in German.
Moreover, as I have already explained to you, I am so situated
intellectually that I can appear one thing to this person and another
to that one without any feigning on my part, and without either of
them being deceived, thanks to having for a time shaken off the yoke
of contradiction.

And then I must tell you that at times I have been within an ace of a
complete reaction, and have wondered whether it would not be more
agreeable to God if I were to cut short the thread of my
self-examination and trace my steps back two or three years. The fact is
that I do not see as I advance further any chance of reaching
Catholicism; each step leads me further away from it. However this may
be, the alternative is a very clear one. I can only return to
Catholicism by the amputation of one of my faculties, by definitely
stigmatising my reason and condemning it to perpetual silence. Yes, if I
returned, I should cease my life of study and self-examination,
persuaded that it could only bring me to evil, and I should lead a
purely mystic life in the Catholic sense. For I trust that so far as
regards a mere commonplace life God will always deliver me from that.
Catholicism meets the requirements of all my faculties excepting my
critical one, and as I have no reason to hope that matters will mend in
this respect I must either abandon Catholicism or amputate this faculty.
This operation is a difficult and a painful one, but you may be sure
that if my moral conscience did not stand in the way, that if God came
to me this evening and told me that it would be pleasing to Him, I
should do it. You would not recognise me in my new character, for I
should cease to study or to indulge in critical thought, and should
become a thorough mystic. You may also be sure that I must have been
violently shaken to so much as consider the possibility of such a
hypothesis, which forces itself upon me with greater terrors than death
itself. But yet I should not despair of striking, even in this career, a
vein of activity which would suffice to keep me going.

And what, all said and done, will be my decision? It is with
indescribable dread that I see the close of the vacation drawing near,
for I shall then have to express, by very decisive action, a very
undecided inward state. It is this complication which makes my
position peculiarly painful. So much anxiety unnerves me, and then I
feel so plainly that I do not understand matters of this kind, that I
shall be certain to make some foolish blunder, and that I shall become
a laughing-stock. I was not born a cunning knave. They will laugh at
my simple-mindedness, and will look upon me as a fool. If, with all
this, I was only sure of what I was doing! But then, again, supposing
that by contact with them I were to lose my purity of heart and my
conception of life! Supposing they were to inoculate me with their
positivism! And even if I were sure of myself, could I be sure of the
external circumstances which have so fatal an action upon us? And who,
knowing himself, can be sure that he will be proof against his own
weakness? Is it not indeed the case that God has done me but a
poor service? It seems as if He had employed all His strategy for
surrounding me in every direction, and a simple young fellow like
myself might have been ensnared with much less trouble. But for all
this I love Him, and am persuaded that He has done all for my good,
much as facts may seem to contradict it. We must take an optimist
view for individuals as well as for humanity, despite the perpetual
evidence of facts telling the other way. This is what constitutes true
courage; I am the only person who can injure myself.

I often think of you, my dear friend; you should be very happy. A
bright and assured future is opening before you; you have the goal in
view, and all you have to do is to march steadily onward to it. You
enjoy the marked advantage of having a strictly defined dogma to go
by. You will retain your breadth of view; and I trust that you may
never discover that there is a grievous incompatibility between the
wants of your heart and of your mind. In that case you would have
to make a very painful choice. Whatever conclusion you may perforce
arrive at as to my present condition and the innocence of my mind, let
me at all events retain your friendship. Do not allow my errors, or
even my faults, to destroy it. Besides, as I have said, I count upon
your breadth of view, and I will not do anything to demonstrate that
it is not orthodox, for I am anxious that you should adhere to it; and
at the same time I wish you to be orthodox. You are almost the only
person to whom I have confided my inmost thoughts; in Heaven's name
be indulgent and continue to call me your brother! My affection, dear
friend, will never fail you.

[Footnote 1: See above, page 262.]

PARIS, _November 12th_, 1845.

I was somewhat surprised, my dear friend, not to get a reply from you
before the close of the vacation. The first inquiry, therefore, which
I made at St. Sulpice was for you, first in order to learn the cause
of your silence, and especially in order that I might have some talk
with you. I need not tell you how grieved I was when I learnt that it
was owing to a serious illness that I had not heard from you. It is
true that the further details which were given me sufficed to allay my
anxiety, but they did not diminish the regret which I felt at finding
the chance of a conversation with you indefinitely postponed. This
unexpected piece of news, coinciding with so strange a phase in my
own life, inspired me with many reflections. You will hardly believe,
perhaps, that I envied your lot, and that I longed for something to
happen which would defer my embarking upon the stormy sea of busy life
and prolong the repose which accompanies home life, so quiet and so
free of care. You will understand this when I have explained to you
all the trials which I have had to undergo and which are still in
store for me. I will not attempt to explain them to you in detail, but
will keep them over until we meet. I will merely relate the principal
facts, and those which have led to a lasting result.

My firm resolution upon coming to St. Sulpice was to break with a past
which had ceased to be in harmony with my present dispositions, and to
be quit of appearances which could only mislead. But I was anxious to
proceed very deliberately, especially as I felt that a reaction within
a more or less considerable interval was by no means improbable. An
accidental circumstance had the effect of bringing the crisis to a
head quicker than I had intended. Upon my arrival at St. Sulpice, I
was informed that I was no longer to be attached to the Seminary, but
to the Carmelite establishment, which the Archbishop of Paris had just
founded, and I was ordered to go and report myself to him the same
day. You can fancy how embarrassed I felt. My embarrassment was still
further increased upon learning that the Archbishop had just arrived
at the Seminary, and wished to speak to me. To accept would be
immoral; it was impossible for me to give the real reason for my
refusal, and I could not bring myself to give a false one. I had
recourse to the services of worthy M. Carbon, who undertook to tell my
story, and so spared me this painful interview. I thought it best to
go right through with the matter when once it had been begun, and I
completed in one day what I had intended to spread over several weeks,
so that on the evening of my return I belonged neither to the Seminary
nor to the Carmelite house.

I was terrified at seeing so many ties destroyed in a few hours, and I
should have been glad to arrest this fatal progress, all too rapid as
I thought; but I was perforce driven forward, and there were no means
of holding back. The days which followed were the darkest of my life.
I was isolated from the whole world, without a friend, an adviser or
an acquaintance, without any one to appeal to about me, and this after
having just left my mother, my native Brittany, and a life gilded with
so many pure and simple affections. Here I am alone in the world, and
a stranger to it. Good-bye for ever to my mother, my little room, my
books, my peaceful studies, and my walks by my mother's side. Good-bye
to the pure and tranquil joys which seemed to bring me so near to God;
good-bye to my pleasant past, good-bye to those faiths which so gently
cradled me. Farewell for me to pure happiness. The past all blotted
out, and as yet no future. And then, I ask myself, will the new world
for which I have embarked receive me? I have left one in which I was
loved and made much of. And my mother, to think of whom was formerly
sufficient to solace me in my troubles, was now the cause of my most
poignant grief. I was, as it were, stabbing her with a knife. O God!
was it then necessary that the path of duty should be so stony? I
shall be derided by public opinion, and with all that the future
unfolded itself before me pale and colourless. Ambition was powerless
to remove the veil of sadness and regrets which infolded my heart. I
cursed the fate which had enveloped me in such fatal contradictions.
Moreover, the gross and pressing requirements of material existence
had to be faced. I envied the fate of the simple souls who are born,
who live and who die without stir or thought, merely following the
current as it takes them, worshipping a God whom they call their
Father. How I detested my reason for having bereft me of my dreams. I
passed some time each evening in the church of St. Sulpice, and there
I did my best to believe, but it was of no use. Yes, these days will
indeed count in my lifetime, for if they were not the most decisive,
they were assuredly the most painful. It was a hard thing to
re-commence life from the beginning, at the age of three and twenty.
I could scarcely realise the possibility of my having to fight my way
through the motley crowd of turbulent and ambitious persons. Timid as
I am, I was ever tempted to select a plain and common-place career,
which I might have ennobled inwardly. I had lost the desire to know,
to scrutinise and to criticise; it seemed to me as if it was enough to
love and to feel; but yet I quite feel that as soon as ever the heart
throbbed more slowly, the head would once more cry out for food.

I was compelled, however, to create a fresh existence for myself in
this world so little adapted for me. I need not trouble you with an
account of these complications, which would be as uninteresting to you
as they were painful to myself. You may picture me spending whole
days in going from one person to another. I was ashamed of myself,
but necessity knows no law. Man does not live by bread alone; but he
cannot live without bread. But through it all I never ceased to keep
my eyes fixed heavenwards.

I will merely tell you that in compliance with the advice of M.
Carbon, and for another peremptory reason of which I will speak to
you later on, I thought it best to refuse several rather tempting
proposals, and to accept in the preparatory school annexed to the
Stanislas College, a humble post which in several respects harmonised
very well with my present position. This situation did not take
up more than an hour and a half of my time each day, and I had the
advantage of making use of special courses of mathematics, physics,
etc., to say nothing of preparatory lectures for the M.A. degree, one
of which was delivered twice a week, by M. Lenormant I was agreeably
surprised at finding so much frank and cordial geniality among
these young people; and I can safely say that I never had anything
approaching to a misunderstanding while there, and that I left the
school with sincere regret. But the most remarkable incident in this
period of my life were beyond all doubt my relations with M. Gratry,
the director of the college. I shall have much to tell you about him,
and I am delighted at having made his acquaintance. He is the very
miniature of M. Bautain, of whom he is the pupil and friend. We became
very friendly from the first, and from that time forward we stood upon
a footing towards one another which has never had its like before,
so far as I am concerned. In many matters our ideas harmonised
wonderfully; he, like myself, is governed wholly by philosophy. He is,
upon the whole, a man of remarkably speculative mind; but upon certain
points there is a hollow ring about him. How came it then, you
will ask, that I was obliged to throw up a post which, taking it
altogether, suited me fairly well, and in which I could so easily
pursue my present plans? This, I must tell you, is one of the most
curious incidents in my life; I should find it almost impossible to
make any one understand it, and I do not believe that any one ever has
thoroughly understood it. It was once more a question of duty. Yes,
the same reason which compelled me to leave St. Sulpice and to refuse
the Carmelite establishment obliged me to leave the Stanislas College.
M. Dupanloup and M. Manier impelled me onward; onward I went, and I
had to start afresh. It seems as if I were fated ever to encounter
strange adventures, and I should be very glad that I had met with this
particular one, if for no other reason for the peculiar positions
in which it placed me, and which were the means of my making a
considerable addition to my store of knowledge.

I had no difficulty, upon leaving the Stanislas College, in taking up
one of the negotiations which I had broken off when I joined it, and
in carrying out my original plan of hiring a student's lodging in
Paris. This is my present position. I have hired a room in a sort
of school near the Luxemburg, and in exchange for a few lessons in
mathematics and literature I am, as the saying goes, "about quits."
I did not expect to do so well. I have, moreover, nearly the whole
of the day to myself, and I can spend as much time as I please at the
Sorbonne, and in the libraries. These are my real homes, and it is in
them that I spend my happiest hours. This mode of life would be very
pleasant if I was not haunted by painful recollections, apprehensions
only too well founded, and above all by a terrible feeling of
isolation. Come and join me, therefore, my dear friend, and we shall
pass some very pleasant hours together.

I have spoken to you thus far of the facts which have contributed to
detain me for the present in Paris, and I have said nothing to you
about the ulterior plans which I have in my head; for you take for
granted, I suppose, that I merely look upon this as a transitory
situation, pending the completion of my studies. It is upon the more
remote future, in fact, that my thoughts are concentrated, now that
my present position is assured. From this arises a fresh source of
intellectual worry, by which I am at present beset, for it is quite
painful to me to have to specialize myself, and besides there is
no specialty which fits exactly into the divisions of my mind. But
nevertheless it must be done. It is very hard to be fettered in one's
intellectual development by external circumstances. You can imagine
what I suffer, after having left my mind so absolutely free to follow
its line of development. My first step was to see what could be done
with regard to Oriental languages, and I was promised some lectures
with M. Quatremere and M. Julien, professor of Chinese at the College
de France. The result went to prove that this was not my outward
specialty. (I say outward because internally I shall never have
one, unless philosophy be classed as one, which to my mind would be
inaccurate.) Then I thought of the university, and here, as you will
understand, fresh difficulties arose. A professorship in the strict
sense of the term is almost intolerable in my eyes, and even if
one does not retain it all one's life long it must be held for a
considerable period. I could get on very well with philosophy if I
were allowed to teach it in my own way, but I should not be able to do
that, and before reaching that stage one would have to spend years
at what I call school literature, Latin verses, themes, etc. The
perspective seemed so dreadful that I had at one time resolved to
attach myself to the science classes, but in that case I should have
been compelled to specialize myself more than in any other branch, for
in scientific literature the principle of a species of universality is
admitted. And besides, that would divert me from my cherished
ideas. No; I will draw as close as possible to the centre which
is philosophy, theology, science, literature, etc., which is, as I
believe, God. I think it probable, therefore, that I shall fix my
attention upon literature, in order that I may graduate in philosophy.
All this, as you may fancy, is very colourless in my view, and the
bent of the university spirit is the reverse of sympathetic to me. But
one must be something, and I have had to try and be that which differs
the least from my ideal type. And besides, who can tell if I may
not some day succeed thereby in bringing my ideas to light? So many
unexpected things happen which upset all calculations. One must be
prepared therefore, for every eventuality, and be ready to unfurl
one's sail at the first capful of wind.

I must tell you also of an intellectual matter which has helped
to sustain and comfort me in these trying moments: I refer to
my relations with M. Dupanloup. I began by writing him a letter
describing my inward state and the steps which I deemed it necessary
to take in consequence. He quite appreciated my course, and we
afterwards had a conversation of an hour and a half in the course
of which I laid bare, for the first time to one of my fellow-men
my inmost ideas and my doubts with regard to the Catholic faith. I
confess that I never met one more gifted; for he was possessed of true
philosophy and of a really superior intelligence. It was only then
that I learnt thoroughly to know him. We did not go thoroughly into
the question. I merely explained the nature of my doubts, and he
informed me of the judgment which from the orthodox point of view
he would feel it his duty to pass upon them. He was very severe and
plainly told me,[1] "that it was not a question of _temptations_
against the faith--a term which I had employed in my letter by force
of the habit I had acquired of following the terminology adopted at
St. Sulpice, but of a complete loss of faith: secondly, that I was
beyond the pale of the Church; thirdly, that in consequence I could
not partake of any sacrament, and that he advised me not to take part
in any outward religious ceremony; fourthly, that I could not
without being guilty of deception, continue another day to pass as
an ecclesiastic, and so forth." In all that did not relate to the
appreciation of my condition, he was as kind as any one possibly
could be. The priests of St. Sulpice and M. Gratry were not nearly so
emphatic in their views and held that I must still regard myself
as tempted.... I obeyed M. Dupanloup, and I shall always do so
henceforth. Still, I continue to confess, and as I have no longer M.
B---- I confess to M. Le Hir, to whom I am devotedly attached. I find
that this improves and consoles me very much. I shall confess to you
when you are ordained a priest. However, out of condescension, as
he said, for the opinion of others, M. Dupanloup was anxious that I
should, before leaving the Stanislas College, go through a course of
private prayer. At first, I was tempted to smile at this proposal,
coming from him. But when he suggested that I should do this under
the care of M. de Ravignan I took a different view of the proposal.
I should have accepted, for this would have enabled me to bring my
connection with Catholicism to a dignified close. Unfortunately, M. de
Ravignan was not expected in Paris before the 10th of November, and
in the meanwhile M. Dupanloup had ceased to be superior of the petty
seminary and I had left the Stanislas College; the realization of this
proposal seems to me adjourned for a long time to say the least of it.

Good-bye, my dear friend, and forgive me for having spoken only of
myself. For your own as for your friend's sake, let me beg of you to
take care of yourself during the period of convalescence and not to
compromise your health again by getting to work too soon. I will not
ask you to answer this unless you feel that you can do so without
fatigue. The true answer will be when we can grasp hands. Till then,
believe in my sincere friendship.

[Footnote 1: M. Cognat merely analyses the rest as follows:--"M.
Renan then enters into some details with regard to preparing for his
examination for admission into the Normal School, and for a literary
degree. With regard to his bachelor's degree, the examination for
which he has not yet passed, it does not cause him much concern.
He had, however, great difficulty in passing, and only did so by
producing a certificate of home study, much as he disliked having
resort to this evasive course. He did not feel compelled to deprive
himself of the benefit of a course which was made use of by every
one else, and which seemed to be tolerated by the law of monopoly
of university teaching in order to temper the odious nature of its
privileges. 'But,' he goes on to say, 'I bear the university a grudge
for having compelled me to tell a lie, and yet the director of the
Normal School was extolling its liberal-mindedness.'"]

PARIS, _September 5th_, 1846.

I thank you, my dear friend, for your kind letter. It afforded me
great pleasure and comfort during this dreary vacation, which I am
spending in the most painful isolation you can possibly conceive.
There is not a human being to whom I can open my heart, nor, what is
still worse, with whom I can indulge in conversations which, however
commonplace, repose the mind and satisfy one's craving for company.
One can be much more secluded in Paris than in the midst of the
desert, as I am now realizing for myself. Society does not consist
in seeing one's fellow-men, but in holding with them some of those
communications which remind one that one is not alone in the world.
At times, when I happen to be mixed up in the crowds which fill our
streets, I fancy that I am surrounded by trees walking. The effect is
precisely the same. When I think of the perfect happiness which used
to be my lot at this season of the year, a great sadness comes
over me, especially when I remember that I have said an everlasting
farewell to these blissful days. I don't know whether you are like me,
but there is nothing more painful to me than to have to say, even in
respect to the most trifling matter, "It is all over, for once and
all." What must I suffer, then, when I have to say this of the only
pleasures which in my heart I cared for? But what can be done? I do
not repent anything, and the suffering induced in the cause of duty
brings with it a joy far greater than those which may have been
sacrificed to it. I thank God for having given me in you one who
understands me so well that I have no need even to lay bare the state
of my heart to him. Yes, it is one of my chief sorrows to think that
the persons whose approbation would be the most precious to me must
blame me and condemn me. Fortunately that will not prevent them from
pitying and loving me.

I am not one of those who are constantly preaching tolerance to the
orthodox; this is the cause of numberless sophisms for the superficial
minds in both camps. It is unfair upon Catholicism to dress it up
according to our modern ideas, in addition to which this can only be
done by verbal concessions which denote bad faith or frivolity. All or
nothing, the Neo-Catholics are the most foolish of any.

No, my dear friend, do not scruple to tell me that I am in this state
through my own fault; I feel sure that you must think so. It is of
course painful for me to think that perhaps as much as half of the
enlightened portion of humanity would tell me that I am hateful in the
sight of God, and to use the old Christian phraseology, which is the
true one, that if death overtook me, I should be immediately damned.
This is terrible, and it used to make me tremble, for somehow or other
the thought of death always seems to me very close at hand. But I have
got hardened to it, and I can only wish to the orthodox a peace
of mind equal to that which I enjoy. I may safely say that since I
accomplished my sacrifice, amid outward sorrows greater than would be
believed, and which, from perhaps a false feeling of delicacy, I have
concealed from every one, I have tasted a peace which was unknown to
me during periods of my life to all appearance more serene. You
must not accept, my dear friend, certain generalities in regard to
happiness which are very erroneous, and all of which assume that one
cannot be happy except by consistency, and with a perfectly harmonized
intellectual system. At this rate, no one would be happy, or only
those whose limited intelligence could not rise to the conception
of problems or of doubt. It is fortunately not so; and we owe our
happiness to a piece of inconsistency, and to a certain turn of the
wheel which causes us to take patiently what with another turn of the
wheel would be absolute torture. I imagine that you must have felt
this. There is a sort of inward debate going on within us with regard
to happiness, and by it we are inevitably influenced in the way
we take a certain thing; for there is no one who will deny that
he contains within himself a thousand germs which might render him
absolutely wretched. The question is whether he will allow them free
course, or whether he will abstract himself from them. We are only
happy on the sly, my dear friend, but what is to be done? Happiness
is not so sacred a thing that it should only be accepted when derived
from perfect reason.

You will perhaps think it strange that, not believing in Christianity,
I can feel so much at ease. This would be singular if I still had
doubts, but if I must tell you the whole truth, I will confess that
I have almost got beyond the doubting stage. Explain to me how you
manage to believe. My dear friend, it is too late for me to exclaim to
you. "Take care." If you were not what you are, I should throw myself
at your feet, and implore of you to declare whether you felt that you
could swear that you would not alter your views at any period of your
existence.... Think what is involved in swearing as to one's future
thoughts!... I am very sorry that our friend A---- is definitely bound
to the Church, for I feel sure that if he has not already doubted he
will do so. We shall see in another twenty years. I hardly know what
I am saying to you, but I cannot help wishing with St. Paul, that "all
were such as I am," thankful that I have no need to add "except these
bonds." With respect to the bonds which held me before, I do not
regret them. Philosophy bids us say, _Dominus pars_.

When I was going up to the altar to receive the tonsure, I was already
terribly exercised by doubt, but I was forced onward, and I was told
that it was always well to obey. I went forward therefore, but God is
my witness, that my inmost thought and the vow which I made to myself,
was that I would take for my part the truth which is the hidden God,
that I would devote myself to its research, renouncing all that is
profane, or that is calculated to make us deviate from the holy and
divine goal to which nature calls us. This was my resolve, and an
inward voice told me that I should never repent me of my promise. And
I do not repent of it, my dear friend, and I am ever repeating the
soothing words _Dominus pars_, and I believe that I am not less
agreeable to God or faithful to my promise, than he who does not
scruple to pronounce them with a vain heart, and a frivolous mind.
They will never be a reproach to me until, prostituting my thought to
vulgar objects, I devote my life to one of those gross and commonplace
aims which suffice for the profane, and until I prefer gross and
material pleasures to the sacred pursuit of the beautiful and the
true. Until that time arrives, I shall recall with anything but regret
the day on which I pronounced these words.

Man can never be sure enough of his thoughts to swear fidelity to such
and such a system which for the time he regards as true. All that he
can do is to devote himself to the service of the truth, whatever it
may be, and dispose his heart to follow it wherever he believes that
he can see it, at no matter how great a sacrifice.

I write you these lines in haste, and with my head full of the by no
means agreeable work which I am doing for my examination, so you must
excuse the want of order in my ideas. I shall expect a long letter
from you which will have on me the effect of water on a thirsty land.

PARIS, _September 11th_, 1846.

I wish that I could comment on each line of your letter which I
received an hour ago, and communicate the many different reflections
which it awakens in me. But I am so hard at work that this is
impossible. I cannot refrain, however, from committing to paper the
principal points upon which it is important that we should come to an
immediate understanding.

It grieved me very much to read that there was henceforward a gulf
fixed between your beliefs and mine. It is not so--we believe the same
things; you in one form, I in another. The orthodox are too concrete,
they set so much store by facts and by mere trifles. Remember the
definition given of Christianity by the Proconsul (_ni fallor_) spoken
of in the Acts of the Apostles, "Touching one Jesus, which was dead,
and whom Paul declared to be alive." Be upon your guard against
reducing the question to such paltry terms. Now I ask of you can the
belief in any special fact, or rather the manner of appreciating and
criticising this fact, affect a man's moral worth? Jesus was much more
of a philosopher in this respect than the Church.

You will say that it is God's will we should believe these trifles,
inasmuch as He had revealed them. My answer is, prove that this is
so. I am not very partial to the method of proving one's case by
objections. But you have not a proof which can stand the test of
psychological or historical criticism. Jesus alone can stand it. But
He is as much with me as with you. To be a Platonist is it necessary
that one should adore Plato and believe in all he says?

I know of no writers more foolish than all your modern apologists;
they have no elevation of mind, and there is not an atom of criticism
in their heads. There are a few who have more perspicacity, but they
do not face the question.

You will say to me, as I have heard it said in the seminary (it is
characteristic of the seminary that this should be the invariable
answer), "You must not judge the intrinsic value of evidence by
the defective way in which it is offered. To say, 'We have not got
vigorous men but we might have them,' does not touch intrinsic truth."
My answer to this is: 1st, good evidence, especially in historical
critique, is always good, no matter in what form it may be adduced;
2nd, if the cause was really a good one, we should have better
advocates to class among the orthodox:

1. The men of quick intelligence, not without a certain amount
of finesse, but superficial. These can hold their own better; but
orthodoxy repudiates their system of defence, so that we need not take
them into account.

2. Men whose minds are debased, aged drivellers. They are strictly

3. Those who believe only through the heart, like children, without
going into all this network of apologetics. I am very fond of them,
and from an ideal point of view I admire them; but as we are dealing
with a question of critique they do not count. From the moral point of
view, I should be one with them.

There are others who cannot be defined, who are unbelievers unknown to
themselves. Incredulity enters into their principles, but they do not
push these principles to their logical consequences. Others believe
in a rhetorical way, because their favourite authors have held this
opinion, which is a sort of classical and literary religion. They
believe in Christianity as the Sophists of the decadence believed
in paganism. I am sorry that I have not the time to complete this

You mistrust individual reason when it endeavours to draw up a system
of life. Very good, give me a better system, and I will believe in
it. I follow up mine because I have not got a better one, and I often
mutiny against it.

I am very indifferent with regard to the outward position in which all
this will land me; I shall not attempt to give myself any fixed place.
If I happen to get placed, well and good. If I meet with any who share
my views we shall make common cause; if not, I must go alone. I am
very egotistical; left wholly to myself, I am quite indifferent to the
views of other people. I hope to earn bread and cheese. The people who
do not get to know me well class me as one of those with whom I have
nothing in common; so much the worse, they will be all in the wrong.

In order to gain influence one must rally to a flag and be dogmatic.
So much the better for those who have the heart for it. I prefer to
keep my thoughts to myself and to avoid saying the thing which is not.

If by one of those revulsions which have already occurred this way
of putting things comes into favour, so much the better. People
will rally to me, but I must decline to mix myself up with all this
riffraff, I might have added another category to the classification
I made just now: that of the people who look upon action as the most
important thing of all, and treat Christianity as a means of action.
They are men of commonplace intelligence compared to the thinker. The
latter is the Jupiter Olympius, the spiritual man who is the judge
of all things and who is judged of none. That the simple possess
much that is true I can readily believe, but the shape in which they
possess it cannot satisfy him whose reason is in proper proportion
with his other faculties. This faculty eliminates, discusses, and
refines, and it is impossible to quench it. I would only too gladly
have done so if I could. With regard to the _cupio omnes fieri_, my
ideas are as follows. I do not apply it to my liberty. One should, as
far as possible, so place oneself as to be ready to 'bout ship when
the wind of faith shifts. And it will shift in a lifetime! How often
must depend upon the length of that lifetime. Any kind of tie renders
this more difficult. One shows more respect to truth by maintaining a
position which enables one to say to her, "Take me whither thou wilt;
I am ready to go." A priest cannot very well say this. He must be
endowed with something more than courage to draw back. If, having gone
so far, he does not become celestial, he is repulsive; and this is
so true that I cannot instance a single good pattern of the kind, not
even M. de Lamennais. He must therefore march ever onward, and bluntly
declare, "I shall always see things in the same light as I have seen
them, and I shall never see them in a different light." Would life be
endurable for an hour if one had to say that?

With regard to the matter of M. A----, and putting all personal
consideration upon one side, my syllogism is as follows. One must never
swear to anything of which one is not absolutely sure. Now one is never
sure of not modifying one's beliefs at some future time, however certain
one may be of the present and of the past. Therefore ... I, too, would
have sworn at one time, and yet....

What you say of the antagonists of Christianity is very true. I have,
as it happens, incidentally made some rather curious researches upon
this point which, when completed, might form a somewhat interesting
narrative entitled _History of Incredulity in Christianity_. The
consequences would appear triumphant to the orthodox, and especially
the first, viz., that Christianity has rarely been attacked hitherto
except in the name of immorality and of the abject doctrines of
materialism--by blackguards in so many words. This is a fact, and I
am prepared to prove it. But it admits, I think, of an explanation. In
those days, people were bound to believe in religions. It was the law
at that time, and those who did not believe placed themselves outside
the general order. It is time that another order began. I believe
too that it has begun, and the last generation in Germany furnished
several admirable specimens of it: Kant, Herder, Jacobi, and even

Forgive me for writing to you in this strain. But I do for you what
I am not doing for those who are dearest to me in the world, to my
sister, for instance, to whom I yesterday wrote less than half a page,
so overburdened am I with work. I solace myself with the anticipation
of the conversation which we shall have after my examination, for I
mean to take a holiday then. There is, however, much that I should
like to write to you about what you tell me of yourself. There, too, I
should attempt to refute you, and with more show of being entitled
to do so. Let me tell you that there are certain things the mere
conception of which entails one's being called upon to realise them.

Good-bye, my very dear friend.... Believe in the sincerity of my

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