Ernest Renan.

Leaders of Christian and anti-Christian thought online

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University of California.



jfirst Series.









IN THE UNITED STATES, a.d. 1780-1842, . 1


OF PHILOSOPHY, a.d. 1775-1833, . . 36

SPINOZA, A.D. 1632-1677, . . . .47

THE TRIAL OF GALILEO, a.d. 1564-1642, . . 72


D.' '1509-1564,* *' • '"/ . • 79

A.D. 1379-1471, ..... 93


A.D. 1182, ...... 108

THE ETERNAL GOSPEL, a.d. 12th and 13th
Centuries, . . . . . .129

MARCUS-AURELIUS, a.d. 121-180, . . .206


The present volume is the first of a series it
is intended to publisli of the fugitive pieces
that have been contributed, from time to time,
by Ernest Renan to the columns of the Revue
des deux Mondes, the Dehats, and other
French periodicals, bearing on the subject of
religion and its history. The series shall
bear the o'enercil title of " Studies in Re-
ligious History," and the present volume the
specific title, " Leaders of Christian and Anti-
Christian Thought." In the seven volumes
of Ernest Renan, already published by the
Temple Company, under the general title of
"Origins of Christianity," viz. — (l) The Life
of Jesus ; (2) The Apostles ; (3) St Paul ; (4)



The Anti-Christ; (5) The Gospels; (6) The
Christian Church ; (7) Marcus Aurelius, or
the End of the Okl World— the English
reader has ]3laced before him, for the first
time, a complete view of the history of
Christianity, from its earliest inception, down
to the first half of the third century of our
era. The object of the present volume is
to set before the reader, in a series of sketches,
some of the more important phases religious
thoug;ht has assumed in the centuries which
lie between the middle of the nineteenth and
the middle of the third respectively. To this
arrangement it may be objected that it is a re-
versal of the chronological order ; which latter,
no doubt, has its advantages, especially in a
historical survey ; chronology being generally re-
garded, and most properly too, as standing in
the same relation to history as the chart does to
the mariner ; still, as this volume does not
pretend to give a connected historical account,
but merely a series of historical (or, more
strictly, biographical) sketches, it has been


deemed advisable to begin with the phases of
religious thought the best known, and pro-
ceed by easy stages to the more remote and
presumbly least known. But the reader is
at liberty to follow the chronological order, if
he prefers it to the one here adopted, without
being pat to any very great incoQvenience.
A. chronolo2:ical table has been added to the
table of contents, and he has only to refer
to this to enable him to bei^in at anv date
his fancy or his convenience may dictate.

Secondary to the object just indicated, the
Translator was desirous of investing the present
volume with that peculiar interest which
attaches to the form of literature known as
biography. The following studies, therefore,
in addition to their historical value, are strictly
biographical. They give us a picture of the
lives of men who have left their imprint on the
age in which they lived, and especially on
its religious thought. By studying the lives
of these great men, as presented to us by M.
Renan, the reader will be a])]e to explain, to


himself at least, why it is that, in the present

day, religion assumes so many faces, even

amongst its most earnest and uncompromising





Protestantism is destined to share the law common
to things hnman ; I mean, of hviug and developing
without ever attaining a fixed point and a permanent
state. This is its privilege, or, if it is preferred, its
curse. If it can be believed that there is here below
a complete system of revealed truth, given once for
all, it is clear that Bossuet was right in his pompous
History of the Variations^ where he represents this
perpetual mobility as the assured sign of error.
Although, if we assume on the other hand, that no
religious or philosophical system can pretend to an
exclusive and absolute value, it is evident that we
must commend him who possesses in himself such
store of flexibility that it can accommodate itself to the
progress of humanity, undergo modifications with it,
and to pursue it to ever new consequences and to
an unknown goal. This tendency of Protestantism
towards a more and more purified religious ideal,
shows itself here under two quite distinct aspects,
according to the divers genius of the two great
divisions of the Reformation. Germany, on its side,



applying to theology its profoundness of mind, its
lofty imagination, its raarvellons aptitude for critical
research, had, at the end of the last century and at
the commencement of the present one, arrived at one
of the grandest and most poetical religious forms
that it is given to one to conceive. That was but
for a moment ; but what a moment in the history of
the human mind, a moment when Kant, Fichte, and
Herder were Christians, when Klopstock sketched the
ideal of the modern Christ, in which was raised that
marvellous edifice of biblical exegesis, a masterpiece
of penetrating criticism and of exalted rationalism !
Never were there so many and such great things
evolved in the name of Christianity ; but vagueness
and indetermination, the essential condition of poetry
in religion, condemned this fair apparition to endure
but for a day, and to leave no deposit for the future.
The schism of the diverse elements which were for
a moment conciliated in its bosom was not long in
manifesting itself. Pure religious sentiment resulted
in a narrow pietism, rationalism and criticism, in
negative and destructive formulas, somewhat analo-
gous to those of our eighteenth century. Catholicism,
ever on the watch to profit by every defection, in-
vaded the territory at every point.

The English race, from its side, in Europe and
America, devoted itself to the solution of the great
problem presented by the Reformation, and in its
own manner pursued the formula of a Christianity
which might be acceptable to the modern spirit.
But she carried into that work neither the force of
intellectual faculties, nor elevated poetry, nor the
liberty of criticism, nor the searching and vast science
which Germany alone in our day has been able to
apply to religious questions. Great integrity of
mind, admirable singleness of heart, an excellent moral
sentiment, were the gifts with which that serious
and strong race sought Christ. Unitarianism, a sort of


compromise, somewhat analogous to that which the
deacon Arins attempted in the fonrtli centniy, was
the highest outcome of its theology ; a few excellent
practical maxims, a truly evangelical spirit, in the
highest sense that it is customary to apply this
word, compensated for what was lacking in its work,
of poetry and profoundness. We may say without
hesitation that from this direction have emanated
the most excellent lessons in morals and in social
philosophy that have until now been heard of in the
world. Administered by good solid natures, strangers
on the one hand to artistic refinements and caprices,
on the other to the exigencies and the scruples of
the savant, the honest and sagacious school of which
we speak has proved at once hoAV greatly diverse
are the gifts of mind, and how widely separated are
the views of genius from the practical wisdom
which labours efficaciously for the amelioration of
the human species.

Channing, whose name, quite new among us,
already combines so much sympathy and precocious
admiration, has been unquestionably the most com-
plete representative of that exclusively American ex-
periment — of religion without mystery, of rationalism
Avithout criticism, of intellectual culture without
elevated poetry, — wdiich seems to be the ideal to
which the religion of the United States aspires. If
he was not the founder, Channing is indeed the
Saint of the Unitarians. The reports which reach us
from America show us that the opinion of his
sanctity increases from day to day, almost border-
ing on legend. A sudden fascination has attracted
to his writings a certain number of the elite of souls
in France and England. We can hence only
applaud the idea which has drawn a publicist and
one of the most distinguished savants, M. Laboulaye,
to lend his name to the introduction amongst us of
these excellent writings. The remarkable essays of


M. Laboulaye, published in the Journal des Debats,
have alrejidy, in France, called attention to the name
of Channing, and inspired in enlightened minds the
desire to know more intimately the master whose
renown has spread over the whole of America. The
volume^ of the translations which we announce
responds to tliat desire : it contains the most
excellent portion of the works of Channing, his
writings on society. At the beginning of a religious
phenomenon really peculiar to our times, and which
seems assured of a great future, it is well to study
with the sympathy that good and fine things de-
serve, but without decided predilection, the person-
ality of this illustrious reformer, and to ask what
part his ideas may be called upon to play among us.


William Ellery Channing^ was born at Newport, in
the state of Rhode Island, the 7th April 1780, of a
respectable family in easy circumstances. It cannot
be said that his education was in any way remark-
able, nor that the circle in which he was brought up
was particularly well suited to develop a mind with
a great speculative bent. Newport was a commercial
city, and a place of favourite resort, and the very
details into which his biographer ingenuously enters
in order to describe the society that was found there
give us a poor enough idea of it. " Rich merchants,"
says he, "marine captains retired from the service,
and others, attracted thence by considerations of

1 (Euvres Sociales de W. E. Channing, translated from tbe
English, preceded by an essay on the Life and Doctrines of
Channing, and by an Introduction by M. E. Laboulaye, Member
of the Institute.

2 The biographical details which follow are taken from the
Memoirs of Channing (New Yoi'k), a collection full of interest,
and which enables us to penetrate to the very bottom of the
soul of Channing.


health, formed a gay and even a refined society.
The presence of English and French officers during
the War of Independence gave a finishing touch
to manners; we must add, too, that through the
influence of French liberalism, and the licence of
speech so commonly indulged by seafaring people,
impiety was widely difiiised throughout almost all
classes." We can, with difficulty, comprehend how,
in the midst of merchants and retired officers, far
from the great centres of instruction, one of those
powerful and lofty individualities could be formed,
to which we give the name of genius. In fact, we
perceive from the first where Channing, later on,
would show his deficiency : I mean, in that mental
refinement which comes from contact with an aris-
tocracy of intellect, and which intercourse with the
people is better calculated perhaps to develop than
the society of the middle class.

To a man especially devoted to intellectual em-
ployments, this Avould indeed be an irreparable
lacune; but to a man like Channing, destined to a
wholly practical mission, it was perhaps an advan-
tage. It must be acknowledged that the qualities of
subtlety and flexibility which are acquired by a varied
culture of the intellectual powers would only impede
the sweeping movement of an apostle. By dint of
seeing the difierent sides of things, we become unde-
cided. The good no longer fires with enthusiasm, for
we see it compensated by an almost equivalent dose
of evil. Evil always disgusts, but no longer irritates
as it should : for we get accustomed to regard it as
a necessity, and sometimes even as the condition of
the good. The apostle ought not to be cognisant of
all these shades of thought. The virtuous Channing
owed perhaps to his sober and somewhat indilferent
education the advantage of preserving all his life the
energies of all his moral tendencies, and the absolute
bent of his convictions. He possessed that happy


privilege of virtuous minds — of walking on the verge
of the abyss without experiencing giddiness, and of
viewing the world at so small an angle that one can
never be terrified at its immensity. In speculation
he never advanced upon the Scotch school, the wise
moderation of which he carried into his theology.
He knew but little of Germany, and that he only
half understood. His literary ideas and his scientific
knowledge were those of an instructed and culti-
vated man, but he was destitute of any special gift
of penetration or originality.

On the other hand, upon all questions of a social,
moral or political order he began to meditate very
early, and that, too, with much force. The idea of
communism, the first, and by consequence the falsest,
that presents itself to the thoughts when one com-
mences to reflect upon the reform of human society,
crossed for a moment his mind ; nay, he was even
tempted to join himself as minister to a company of
emigrants Avhose principle was community of goods.
His childhood and youth were harassed by great
perturbations, which contrasts very strangely with
the profound calmness of the rest of his life. Forty
years after this period of trial, it recurred gently to
his thoughts, and he spoke of it in these terms : " I
lived alone, devoting myself to the forming of plans
and projects, nobody being under the same roof with
me except at the hours when I gave lessons : then 1
worked as I have never done since. There being no
human being to whom I could communicate my
thoughts, and eschewing ordinary society, I passed
through intellectual and moral combats, by reason
of troubles of both mind and heart, which were so
vivid and absorbing that they deprived me of sleep,
and sensibly affected my constitution. I was re-
duced almost to a skeleton, nevertheless, it is
with pleasure that I recall those days of isolation
and of sadness. If ever 1 aspired with my whole


soul towards purity and truth, it was indeed tlien.
In the midst of rude combats, this great question
rose within me : ' Shall 1 obey the highest or the
meanest principles of my nature? Shall I be the
victim of worldly passions, or the child and the
servant of God?' I remember that this great con-
flict went on in me, and none of those who were
about me so much as suspected what I passed

His reflections on religion led him very early into
a profound dissent from the EstabHshed Church, and
a strong antipathy to the absolute and terrible doc-
trines of Calvinism. His indignation against this
" vulgar and frightful theology," as he calls it,
breaks out in every page of his writings. His
whole theology is henceforward summed up in
these words, " God is good." The austere views
of religion A\5hicli people regard as favourable to
piety, seemed to hrni a cruel severity which dif-
fuses a melancholy, casts obscurity over God,
over the present life, over the life to come, and
by its sadness leads fatally to the superstitions of
Paganism. " Enghsh theology," he wrote about 1801,
"seems to me altogether of very little value. To me
an Established Church seems to be the grave of in-
telligence. To impose a fixed and unvariable creed
is to build prison walls round the soul. . . . The
timidity, the coldness, the dulness which generally
marks all books of theology, is principally to be at-
tributed to the cause we speak of." And some years
after, he writes : "I know that Calvinism is embraced
by many excellent men : but I know, too, that on
some hearts it has the saddest effects, that it spreads
impenetrable darkness over them, that it begets a
spirit of servility and fear, that it chills the best affec-
tions, that it checks the most virtuous efforts, that it
overthrows sometimes the seat of reason. The inllu-
ence of this system on sensitive minds is always to


be dreaded. If people could believe it, they would
find in it grounds of discouragement that would run
even to madness. If I and all my dear friends, and
all my race have come from the hands of God totally
depraved, irresistibly drawn towards evil and de-
testing good ; if but a portion of the human race
can be saved from this miserable condition, and the
remainder must be condemned to endless and eternal
flames by the Being who gave us a perverse and
depraved nature, then, in my judgment, there re-
mains nothing but to lament in anguish of heart ;
existence is a curse, and the Creator is — I dare not
say what. merciful Father, I cannot speak of
Thee in the terms which this system suggests ! No,
Thou hast given me too many proofs of Thy kind-
ness to allow such a reproach to pass my lips. Thou
hast created me to be happy ; Thou hast called me to
virtue and to piety, because in virtue and in piety
happiness consists, and Thou dost not expect from
me what Thou hast not made me capable of accom-

The religious condition into which Channiug thus
found himself drawn was a doctrine very simihar to
that of the Arians and Pelagians. He did not regard
man as wholly corrupted by sin : he did not see in
the Christ the incarnate God, descended to the earth
to bear the burden of our transgressions, and to
purchase our justification by his own sufi*erings ; but
neither did he regard man as being in a normal con-
dition, and as advancing naturally towards goodness.
In Jesus Christ he did not see merely a person of
superior religious genius, who by means of a delicate
temperament and under the stimulus of his national
enthusiasm had attained to the most perfect union
with God. He rather fell in with those who con-
sider the human race to be actually degenerated by
an abuse of free will. In Jesus Christ he recognised
a sublime being, who had wrought a crisis in the


condition of humanity, had renewed the moral sense,
and touched with saving power the fountains of
good that w^ere hidden in the depths of the heart
of man.

These doctrines are very similar to those ()f
Unitarianism, which, at the time we speak of, had
in America quite a number of churches. Ohanniug
joined the Unitarians, and, at the age of twenty-
three, accepted the position of pastor, which he ex-
ercised for the rest of his life in the Federal Street
Church, Boston ; but he never carried into his
pastorate a sectarian or party spirit. His aversion
to all official establishment convinced him that even
the broadest of sects was much too narrow. There
is hardly one of his sermons in which he does not
recur to that fundamental thought : " I beg of you
to remember," he said, " that in this discourse I speak
for myself alone. I do not give you the opinions
of any sect ; I give you my own. I alone am re-
sponsible for what I say ; let no one listen to me in
order to find out what others think. 1 belong, it is
true, to that society of Christians who believe that
there is but one God, the Father, and that Jesus
Christ is not that unique God ; still, my adhesion io
that sect is very far from being entire, and I do not
seek to attract to it new proselytes. What other
men believe is of little importance to me. I can
listen to their arguments with pleasure, but I am at
liberty to accept or reject their conclusions. True it
iy, I cheerfully take the name of Unitarian, because
people have attempted to decry it, and because 1 have
not so learned the rehgion of Christ as to recoil before
the reproaches of men. If that name was more hon-
oured than it is, I should probably take pleasure in
rejecting it, for I fear the chains that party imposes.
I wish not to belong to a sect, but to a community
of free minds which loves the truth, and will follow
Christ on this earth antl u^) to heaven. \ desire to


escape from the narrow bounds of any particular
Church, in order to live under the open heaven, in
the full light of day, regarding from a distance every-
thing around me, seeing with my own eyes, listening
with my own ears, and pursuing the truth resolutely,
however arduous or solitary the path it leads to. I
am not, then, the mouthpiece of a sect ; I speak for
myself alone, and I thank God that I live in times
and in circumstances which makes it a duty for me
to open my whole soul frankly and unreservedly."

The real originahty of Channiug rests in this idea
of a pure Cimstianity, freed from all bonds of sect, in
his aversion to all spiritual despotism, though freely
accepted, in his hatred to that which he calls a de-
grading uniformity of opinions. No one has ever found
stronger words in which to condemn official faith and
discipline ; no one has better understood that a truth
which does not proceed from a man's own heart, and
which is applied as a kind of exterior form, is in-
efficacious and without moral value. The verb to
believe is repugnant to Channing. He sees in the
obedience exacted by faith a remnant of the old
system, which rested upon fear, and upon the sup-
pression of individual consciences by the constituted
authority. He thinks that it is more preferable to
raise up a few evil passions than to perpetuate slavery
and lethargy. Unity, such as it has been understood
by the Church from the beginning, appeared to him
henceforth impossible to pursue. Unity in variety is
with him the law of the Church of the future, and he
cherishes no fond dream that Catholicism, imposed by
a clergy distinct from the faithful, and retaining for
itself the monopoly in matters of religion, shall be
displaced in the future by a universal communion of
Christians animated by pure love.

This liberal and exalted tolerance is the one thing
which most delights Channing, and which draws
from liim the noblest utterances, which we cannot


do better tliau to quote. " Your chief duty in lieu
of belief," he says, " may be summed up iu two pre-
cepts: Respect those loho differ from you; respect your-
selves. Honour men of different sects. Do not
imagine that you have the exckisive privilege of
truth and goodness. Never consider the Church of
Christ to be confined within the hmits of human
invention, but as comprehendiug all sects. Honour
all men. At the same time respect yourselvei^.
Never suffer your opinions to be treated with con-
tempt, but, as you would not impose them upon any
one, let it be seen that you revere them as the trvith,
and that you expect the respect and the courtesy of
those who converse with you on that point. Place
yoiu'selves always on terms of perfect equality with
eyQYj sect, and do not embolden any one by your
timidity, to take up towards you a tone of dictation,
superiority, or contempt."

One singular consequence" of this wide indefinite-
ness, of this exclusion of all exclusiveness, was to
render him especially tolerant of the most intolerant
of all religious societies. He saw around him
Catholicism calumniated, semi -persecuted, and he
loved it. The lively sympathy which he conceived
for the writings of Fenelon, the influence of the
pleasant recollections which Cheverus had left behind
him in the United States, and, above all, the advant-
age which, in his eyes, Catholicism had in not being
otHcial in the country in which he lived, determined
his ideas in that sense. He feared the future of the
Catholic propaganda in England, iu particular the
Oxford movement, because he saw in it a reaction of
the individual conscience against the Established
Church. He was indignant against theologians who
were alarmed at the progress of Catholicism, and
who fancied themselves as infallible as the Pope.
"Do they not perceive," said he, "that if men must
choose between two infallibilities, they will choose


the Pope as the most aucient, and the one which is

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Online LibraryErnest RenanLeaders of Christian and anti-Christian thought → online text (page 1 of 18)