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The Position of the Shemitic Nations in the History of Civilization









An Inaugural Lecture,







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A year or two ago,” says a writer in the London Review of the 8th of March last, “a lady who was an intimate friend of Queen Hortense, and who had known Louis Napoleon from his boyhood, drew his attention to the great literary merit of Monsieur Ernest Renan. The Emperor, ever anxious to attract to his side the leading minds of France, listened with interest, and lost no time in casting about for some means to get Monsieur Renan into his service. This, however, was not so easy, for Monsieur Renan was a member of what we may call the party of the Institut, and was utterly opposed to the existing state of things. At length, however, an interview was arranged, and a series of negotiations commenced, which ended in Monsieur Renan’s agreeing to go to Syria, with a view to carrying out, under the auspices of the French Government, explorations and excavations amongst the old Phœnician cities. He went thither, and he returned thence, unpledged to the Government. His journey was saddened by a most melancholy event in his family, but he accomplished his object, and has come back to prepare for the press a great work on Phœnician antiquities, and to put into shape the numerous new ideas which he had gained in the East.

“A month or two after his return, the Imperial Government appointed him to the chair of Hebrew. His fitness for the post is beyond dispute. He is incomparably the first Shemitic scholar in France, and is one of the very few Frenchmen whom the proudest of German literati allow to be on a level with themselves in learning, while they speak with the highest admiration of his immeasurably greater skill in clothing his ideas in simple and eloquent language. On this point we may speak with some certainty, because it is only a few weeks since we had the pleasure of conveying to Monsieur Renan the cordial congratulations of the greatest German scholar whose line of study has coincided with his labours. Some symptoms of disapprobation having reached the ears of Government, when Monsieur Renan’s appointment was first talked of, it was proposed that the title of the chair to which he was nominated should be the ‘Professorship of the Shemitic Languages as compared with each other,’ and not the old title of ‘Professorship of Hebrew.’”

“It was understood,” adds a writer in the Literary Gazette of the same date, “when the chair was offered him, that he was to be careful of entering on the arena of religious discussion. It would seem that in the broad generalizations which he has made on the distinctive characters of the Indo-Germanic and Shemitic races, he has handled a very delicate topic with great freedom. The delivery of the lecture gained for him a most gratifying and unexpected exhibition of feeling on the part of the Paris students, so prompt and decided, and sometimes so despotic in their verdicts on public characters, whose manifestations, however, are delightful even to professors, and whose opinions have to be considered, no less by journalists, as a power in the country.

“M. Renan’s friends were not without some apprehensions about his reception, as the student-population of the present time is passionately sensitive on all topics of a religious nature, owing to the interest which is felt on the Italo-Roman question. The lecturer, however, though he came out triumphantly from this ordeal, met with less favour from the authorities of the Collége de France and the Government, for his lectures have been suspended.”[1]

The translator does not enter the arena either in defence of M. Renan or of the French Government. In England his appointment would either never have been made, or never have been rescinded upon the mere pressure of any set of men of extreme opinions, whatever their rank or profession. As it is, the London Review is not far wrong in saying, “It is difficult to say how much harm may be done to the Imperial Government by too frequently yielding to the noisy protests of enemies who vent their spite by interrupting plays and lectures. Not to have appointed Professor Renan, would have been but a small matter. ‘Here is another instance,’ people would have said, ‘of an able man passed over on account of his political opinions.’ First, however, to appoint him, and then to suspend him in deference to the clamour of the Ultramontane faction, is to give the bitterest enemies of the present régime a most unnecessary triumph.”

The lecture is here presented to the reader as sent forth by the author in print, being simply a faithful translation of the French original. Truth has nothing to fear from error; constant friction does but improve its polish, even as it removes the rust from steel.

May, 1862.




In reproducing this discourse, it is a pleasing duty to me to express my thanks to the kind and enlightened audience, which, perceiving with much tact that it involved a question of liberty, upheld me during its delivery. To interrupt an intellectual exercise at which one is not compelled to be present, appears to me, at all times, to be an illiberal action; it is to oppose oneself with violence to the opinion of another; to confound two things, totally distinct: the admitted right of fault-finding, according to liking or conscience; and the pretended right of stifling, by one’s own authority, notions which are looked upon as objectionable. Who does not see that this last pretension is the source of all violence and all oppression? In the teachings of the College of France, surrounded by so many safeguards, this suppression of speech seems to me particularly out of place. The nomination of the Professors to that institution is made on the presentation of the Professors of the College, met together for the purpose, and on that of the requisite class of the Institute. This double presentation is not an indisputable authority; but it suffices, at least, to show that he who is honoured with it cannot be accused of presumptuous intentions, when he ascends a chair to which he has been appointed by suffrages so empowered.

I was desirous that the form of this first lecture should not mislead the public as to the nature of my teaching. Downwards, from Vatable and Mercier to M. Quatremère, the chair to which I have had the honour to be presented and named, has borne a scientific (technique) and special character. Without fettering in any way my liberty or that of my successor, I should feel that I was doing an injury to science by an appearance of disregard to this honoured tradition. What would become of our graver studies, if they had not an inviolable sanctuary in the College of France? What of high cultivation of the intellect, if mere general expositions, well enough, perhaps, when delivered in the presence of a numerous audience, are to stifle instruction in a more severe form in an institution which, above all others, is destined to endure as the School of deep scientific research? I should be most culpable, if the future could charge me with having contributed to such a change. The progress of science is compromised, if we do not profit by deep thought and reflection; if any one thinks he fulfils the duties of life in holding blindly the opinions of any party on all things; if fickleness, exclusive opinions, abrupt and peremptory forms, suppress problems, instead of solving them. Oh, that the fathers of modern intellect comprehended better the holiness of thought! Noble and venerable shades of Reuchlin, of Henry Stephens, of Casaubon, of Descartes, rise up and teach us what price you put upon truth; by what toil you attained it; what you suffered for it! It was the comprehensive speculations of twenty persons in the seventeenth century which entirely changed the notions of civilized nations throughout the world; it was the obscure labours of some poor scholars of the sixteenth century which founded historical criticism, and opened up a total revolution in ideas on the past history of man.

I have had too sensible an experience of the intellectual discernment of the public, not to feel certain that all those who supported me yesterday will approve of my following a like course, the most profitable assuredly for science and the wholesome discipline of the mind.

Paris, February 23rd, 1862.







I am proud to ascend into this chair, the most ancient in the College of France, conspicuous for eminent men in the sixteenth century, and occupied in our own day by a scholar of such merit as M. Quatremère. In founding the College of France as a sanctuary for free science and learning, King Francis the First laid down as a constitutive law of this great establishment, complete independence of criticism, unbiased search after truth and impartial discussion, bounded by no rules but those of good taste and sincerity. Such, gentlemen, is precisely the spirit which I would bring into my teaching. I know the difficulties which are inseparable from the chair which I have the honour to occupy. It is the privilege and the danger of Shemitic studies to touch on the most important problems in the history of the human race. Freedom of thought knows no limit; but it necessitates that mankind should have reached that degree of calm contemplation, where it is not required to recognise God in each particular order of facts, simply because He is seen in all things. Liberty, gentlemen, when thoroughly understood, allows these opposing claims to exist side by side. I hope, by your aid, that this course will be a proof of it. As I shall not introduce any dogmatism into my teaching; as I shall always confine myself to appealing to your reason, while proposing to you, what I believe to be the most probable, leaving you always the most perfect freedom of judgment, who can complain? Only those who believe they have a monopoly of truth. But such persons must renounce now their claims to the mastery of the world. The Galileo of our day will not retract what he knows to be the truth, on bended knee.

You will permit me, in the performance of my task, to descend to the smallest details, and to be habitually technical; and Science, gentlemen, only attains its sacred object, the discovery of truth, on condition of being special and rigorous. Everyone is not intended to be a chemist, physician, philologist; to shut himself up in his laboratory, to follow up for years an experiment, or a calculation; everyone, however, participates in the great philosophical results of chemistry, medicine, and philology. To present these results, divested of the processes which have served to discover them, is a useful thing which Science should not forbid. But such is not the mission of the College of France: all the most special and most minute processes of Science should be here laid bare. Laborious demonstrations, patient analysis, excluding it is true no general development, no legitimate digression: such is the programme of our course. It is, so to speak, the laboratory of philological science thrown open to the public, that it may call into being special vocations, and that the world may form an idea of the means employed to arrive at Truth.

To-day, gentlemen, I should depart from what is customary, and disappoint your expectations, were I to inaugurate this course by mere technical developments. I would fain recall to you the memory of that eminent scholar whom I have the honour to succeed—M. Stephen Quatremère. But this duty having been already fulfilled in a manner which does not allow me to repeat it, I shall dedicate this first lecture to conversing with you on the general character of the nations whose language and literature we shall study together; on the part they have filled in history; and on the portion which they have contributed to the common work of civilization.

The most important results to which historical and philological science has arrived during the last half century, have been to shew, in the general development of our races, two elements of such a nature which, mixing in unequal proportions, have made the woof of the tissue of history. From the seventeenth century—and, indeed, almost from the middle ages—it has been acknowledged that the Hebrews, the Phœnicians, the Carthagenians, the Syrians, the Babylonians (at least from a certain period), the Arabs, and the Abyssinians, have spoken languages most intimately connected. Eichhorn, in the last century, proposed to call these languages Shemitic, and this name, most inexact as it is, may still be used.

A most important and gratifying discovery was made in the beginning of our century. Thanks to the knowledge of Sanscrit, due to English scholars at Calcutta, German philologists, especially M. Bopp, have laid down sure principles, by means of which it is shown that the ancient idioms of Brahmanic India, the different dialects of Persia, the Armenian, many dialects of the Caucasus, the Greek and Latin languages, with their derivatives, the Slavonic, German, and Celtic, form one vast family entirely distinct from the Shemitic group, under the name of Indo-Germanic, or Indo-European.

The line of demarcation, revealed by the comparative study of languages, was soon strengthened by the study of literatures, institutions, manners, and religions. If we know how to assume the right point of view in such a careful comparison, it is seen that the ancient literatures of India, Greece, Persia, and the German or Teutonic nations, are of a common stock, and exhibit deeply rooted similarity of mind. The literature of the Hebrews and that of the Arabs, have much in common; while on the contrary they have as little as possible with those which I have just named. We should search in vain for an epic or a tragedy among the Shemitic nations; as vainly should we search among the Indo-European nations for anything analogous to the Kasida of the Arabs, and that species of eloquence which distinguishes the Jewish prophets and the Koran. The same must be said of their institutions. The Indo-European nations had, from their beginning, an old code, of which the remains are found in the Brahmanas of India, in the forms of the Romans, and in the laws of the Celts, the Germans, and the Slaves; the patriarchal life of the Hebrews and Arabs was governed, beyond contradiction, by laws totally different. Finally, the comparison of religions has thrown decisive light on this question. By the side of comparative philology in Germany there has of late years arisen the science of comparative mythology, which has shown that all the Indo-European nations had, in their beginning, with the same language also the same religion, of which each carried away scattered fragments on leaving their common cradle; this religion, the worship of the powers and phenomena of Nature leading by philosophical development to a sort of Pantheism. The religious development of the Shemitic nations obeyed laws totally different. Judaism, Christianity, Islamism, possess a character of dogmatism, absolutism, and severe monotheism which distinguishes them radically from the Indo-European,—or, as we term them, the Pagan religions.

Thus we see two individualities, perfectly recognizable, which occupy between them, in some manner, nearly the whole field of history, and which are, as it were, the two poles of the axis of civilization. I say nearly the whole field of history; for besides these two great individualities, there are still two or three, which are yet sufficiently palpable for the purposes of science, and of which the action has been considerable. Putting China aside, as a world by itself, and the Tartar races, which have only acted as inherent scourges to destroy the works of others, Egypt has had a considerable part in the history of the world; yet Egypt is neither Shemitic nor Indo-European; nor is Babylon a purely Shemitic creation. There was there, it seems to me, a first type of civilization analogous to that of Egypt. It may be said even, generally, that before the entrance of the Indo-European and Shemitic nations on the field of history, the world had already very ancient civilizations, to which we are indebted, if not for moral, at any rate for the elements of industry, and a long experience of material life. But all this is yet but dimly shadowed by history; all this fades before such facts as the mission of Moses, the invention of alphabetical writing, and the conquests of Cyrus and Alexander; the rule of the world by the genius of the Greeks, Christianity, and the Roman Empire; Islamism, the Germanic conquest, Charlemagne, and the Revival of letters; the Reformation, Philosophy, the French Revolution, and the conquest of the world by modern Europe. Here, then, is the great current of history; this great current is formed by the mingling of two streams, in comparison with which all its other confluents are but rivulets. Let us try to trace in this complex whole the part played by each of the two great races, which, by their combined action, and more often by their antagonism, have conducted the course of the world to the point on which we stand.

Let me explain. When I speak of the blending of the two races, it is simply in respect to the blending of ideas, and, if I may venture to express myself, to fellow labour historically considered, that I would use the term. The Indo-European and the Shemitic nations are in our day still perfectly distinct. I say nothing of the Jews, whose singular and wonderful historical destiny, has given them an exceptional position among mankind, and who, except in France, which has set the world an example in upholding the principle of a purely ideal civilization, disregarding all difference of races, form everywhere a distinct and separate society. The Arab, and, in a more general sense, the Mussulman, are separated from us in the present day more than they have ever been. The Mussulman (the Shemitic mind is everywhere represented in our times by Islamism) and the European, in the presence of one another, are like beings of a different species, having no one habit of thought and feeling in common. But the progress of mankind is accomplished by the contest of contrary tendencies; by a sort of polarisation, in consequence of which each idea has its exclusive representatives in this world. It is as a whole, then, that these contradictions harmonise, and that profound peace results from the shock of apparently inimical elements.

This admitted, if we seek out what the Shemitic nations have contributed to that organic and living whole, which we call civilization, we shall find, first, that in Political Economy we owe them nothing. Political life is, perhaps, that which is most innate and peculiar to Indo-European nations; for these nations alone have known liberty, and comprehended, in fact, the constitution of the State and the liberty of the Subject. It is true they have by no means at all times reconciled these two opposite necessities equally well. But we never find amongst them those great single despotisms, destroying all individuality, and reducing man to a sort of abstract state and nameless function, as we see him in Egypt, Babylonia, China, and in Mussulman and Tartar despotisms. Take, one after another, the little municipal republics of Greece and Italy, the Germanic feudality, the grand centralized organizations of which Rome gave the first model, and of which the French Revolution reproduced the ideal, and you will always find a vigorous moral element, a strong sense of the public weal, and sacrifice to one general end. Individuality was but little secured in Sparta; the petty democracies of Athens, and of Italy in the middle ages, were nearly as ferocious as the most venal tyrant; the Roman Empire reached (partly, it is true, through the influence of the East) to an intolerable despotism; German feudality bordered upon brigandage; the French monarchy, under Louis XIV., almost emulated the excesses of the Sassanidan or Mongol dynasties; the French Revolution, while calling into being with incomparable vigour the principle of unity in the State, frequently compromised liberty in no trifling degree. But prompt reactions have always saved these nations from the consequences of their errors.

Not so in the East. The East, especially the Shemitic East, has never known any medium between the complete anarchy of the wandering Arabs and sanguinary and unmitigated despotism. The idea of public weal, of public good, is completely wanting among these nations. True and complete liberty, such as the Anglo-Saxon race has realized, and grand State organizations, such as the Roman Empire and France have engendered, have been equally unknown to them. The ancient Hebrews and the Arabs have been, and are at short intervals, the most free of men; but conditionally subject to the chance of having on the morrow a chief who takes off their heads at pleasure. And when that happens, no one complains of violated rights. David attained his kingdom by means of a sort of energetic brigandage (condottiere), which was not inconsistent with his being a very religious man, and a king after God’s own own heart; Solomon succeeded to and maintained the throne by the same means as are used by Sultans in every age, which did not prevent his passing for the wisest of kings. When the Prophets attacked royalty, it was not in the name of a political right; it was in the name of the Theocracy. Theocracy, anarchy, despotism—such, gentlemen, is, in few words, the epitome of Shemitic political economy; happily it is not ours. Political economy deduced from Holy Scripture (very imperfectly deduced, it is true) by Bossuet, is a detestable system. In politics as in poetry, in religion, and in philosophy, the duty of the Indo-European nations is to search out subtleties, to reconcile antagonistic claims, and that complexity of ideas, so utterly unknown to Shemitic nations, whose organizations have always been of distressing and fatal simplicity.

In Art and Poetry, what do we owe to them? Nothing in Art. These nations have but little of Art in them; our Art comes entirely from Greece. In Poetry, however, without being their dependents, we hold in common with them more than one point of resemblance. The Psalms have become, in some respects, one of our sources of poetry. Hebrew poetry has taken its place among us, by the side of Greek poetry, not as furnishing any positive school, but as constituting a poetical ideality, a sort of Olympus, where, by dint of an accepted prestige, everything is tinted by a lambent glory. Milton, Lamartine, Lamennais, would not have existed at all, or certainly not as they are, without the Psalms. Here, again, all the shadows that are delicate, all that are profound, are our own work. The subject which is essentially poetic is the destiny of man; his melancholy vicissitudes, his uneasy search into causes, his just complaint against Heaven. We have no need to learn this from any one. The eternal school for this is the soul of each individual.

In Science and Philosophy we are exclusively Greek. The search into causes, knowledge for the sake of knowledge, is a thing of which there is no trace previous to Greece; a process we have learnt from her alone. Babylon had Science, but not the real element of science, an absolute fixidity of the laws of Nature. Egypt had knowledge of geometry, but she did not produce the Elements of Euclid. As to the old Shemitic mind, it was in its nature anti-philosophical and anti-scientific. In Job, the search into causes is almost represented as impiety. In Ecclesiastes, science is declared a vanity. The author, prematurely disgusted, vaunts his having learnt all that is under the sun, and of having found nothing but weariness. Aristotle, nearly his contemporary, and who had more right to say that he had exhausted the universe, never speaks of weariness. The wisdom of Shemitic nations never rises above parables and proverbs. Arabian science and Arabian philosophy are often alluded to, and, in fact, during one or two centuries in the middle ages, the Arabs were our teachers; but it was only until we were acquainted with the Greek originals. This Arabian science and philosophy was only a puerile rendering of Greek science and philosophy. From the time when Greece herself reappeared, these pitiful versions became valueless; and it was not without cause that all scholars at the revival of letters commenced a real crusade against them. When closely examined, moreover, this Arabian science has nothing Arabian in it. Its foundation is purely Greek; among its originators there is not a single true Shemite; they were all Spaniards and Persians who wrote in Arabic. The philosophical part filled by the Jews in the middle ages was that of simple interpreters. The Jewish philosophy of that period is Arabian philosophy, without modification. One page of Roger Bacon contains more of the true spirit of Science than all this second hand knowledge, devoid of true originality, and respectable only as a link in the chain of tradition.

If we examine the question in a moral and social point of view, we shall find that Shemitic morality is, at times, very high and very pure. The code attributed to Moses contains exalted ideas of right. The prophets are sometimes most eloquent tribunes. The moralists, Jesus the son of Sirach, and Hillel, rise to a surprising loftiness. Nor must we forget that the morality of the Gospel was first preached in a Shemitic tongue. On the other hand the Shemitic character is generally hard, narrow, egotistical. In this race we find strong passions, perfect devotion, and incomparable qualities. It rarely possesses that delicacy of moral feeling which seems to be the peculiar inheritance of the Germanic and Celtic races. The tender, deep, melancholy emotions, those dreams of the infinite in which all the powers of the soul are mingled, that great consciousness of duty, which alone gives a solid basis to our faith and our hopes, are the work of our race and our climate. Here, then, the labour is mingled. The moral education of mankind is not the exclusive merit of any race. The reason of this is perfectly simple. Morality does not teach more than Poetry; beautiful aphorisms do not make an honest man. Everyone finds good in the loftiness of his nature, and in the immediate revelation of his own heart.

As regards industry, invention, material civilization, we owe, beyond contradiction, much to the Shemitic nations. Our race, gentlemen, did not begin with a taste for comfort and for business. It was a moral, brave, and warlike race, jealous of liberty and honour, loving Nature, capable of self-devotion, preferring many things to life. Commerce and the industrial arts were first carried on on a grand scale by a Shemitic people, or at least by a people speaking a Shemitic tongue,—the Phœnicians. In the middle ages, the Arabs and the Jews were also our masters in point of commerce. All European luxuries, from ancient times to the seventeenth century, came from the East. I speak of luxury, not of Art; there is a vast difference between the two. Greece, which, as regards taste, had an immense superiority over the rest of mankind, was not a land of luxury; there the vain magnificence of the palace of the great king was spoken of with contempt; and if we could be allowed to see the house of Pericles, we should probably scarcely think it habitable. I do not insist on this point; for then we should have to examine whether this Asiatic luxury, that of Babylon, for instance, were really the work of the Shemites? I, for one, doubt it. But one indisputable gift they made us, a gift of the highest order, and which ought to place the Phœnicians nearly on a par with their brothers, the Hebrews and Arabs, in the history of progress,—our alphabet. You know that the characters which we now use are, through a thousand transformations, the same with which the Shemites first expressed the sounds of their language. The Greek and Latin alphabets, from which our European alphabets are all derived, are no other than the Phœnician alphabet. Phonetic writing, that luminous idea of expressing each articulation by a sign, and reducing these articulations to a small number—twenty-two,—was an invention of the Shemites. But for them, we should, perhaps, still be draggling on painfully with hieroglyphics. It may, therefore, be said, in one sense, that the Phœnicians, whose literature has so unhappily entirely disappeared, have thus fixed the essential condition to all firm and precise exercise of thought.

But I hasten to pass on, gentlemen, to the chief service which the Shemitic race has rendered to the world, to its especial work, and, if one may be allowed the expression, its Providential mission. We do not owe to the Shemitic race our political existence, our Art, our Poetry, our Philosophy, nor our Science. For what, then, are we indebted to it? We owe to them Religion. The whole world, with the exception of India, China, Japan, and nations yet altogether savage, has adopted Shemitic religions. The civilized world numbers only Jews, Christians, and Mussulmans. The Indo-European race, in particular, except the Brahmanic family and the feeble remnants of the Parsees, has passed entirely over to Shemitic creeds. What has been the cause of this remarkable phenomenon? How is it that nations, which hold the guidance of the world, have abdicated their own creed to adopt that of those whom they have overcome?

The primitive worship of the Indo-European race, gentlemen, was as beautiful and full of depth as the imagination of the people themselves. It was like an echo of Nature—a sort of Nature’s hymn,—in which the idea of a single Cause appeared but fleetingly and with great indistinctness. It was a religion of childhood, full of simplicity and poetry, but which was sure to crumble away as thought became more active. Persia first effected its reform, which is connected with the name of Zoroaster, under influences, and at a period, of which we know nothing. Greece, in the time of Pisistratus, was even then dissatisfied with her religion, and cast her look towards the East. In the Roman epoch, the old Pagan worship had become altogether insufficient. It no longer appealed to the imagination; it addressed itself but feebly to the moral sentiment. The early embodiments of the powers of Nature had become but legends, at times amusing and pointed, but destitute of all religious value. It was exactly at this epoch that the civilised world found itself face to face with the Jewish religion.[2] Founded on the clear and simple dogma of Divine Unity, scattering naturalism and pantheism to the winds, by this phrase of marvellous precision: “In the beginning God created the Heaven and the Earth;” possessing a Law, a Book, the repository of elevated moral teachings and lofty religious poetry, Judaism had an incontestible superiority, and at that time it might have seemed possible to predict that some day the world would worship as the Jews; that is, leave its ancient mythology for monotheism. An extraordinary movement which took place at that moment, in the bosom of Judaism itself, decided the victory. Side by side with these grand and incomparable portions, Judaism contained the principle of a narrow formalism and fanaticism, both exclusive and disdainful of the foreigner. This was the Pharisaical spirit; in later times it engendered the Talmudical spirit. If Judaism had been nothing but Pharisaism, it would have had no future. But this race possessed in itself a religious activity truly extraordinary. Moreover, like all great races, it nurtured opposite tendencies: it knew how to re-act against itself, and to acquire, where needed, qualities the most opposed to its defects. In the very midst of the tumultuous fermentation in which the Jewish nation was plunged, under the last Aramean princes, the most extraordinary moral event recorded in history came to pass in Galilee.

A man, to be compared with none other—so great indeed that, although every thing in these studies and in this place, should be viewed only by the light of Positive Science, I should be unwilling to contradict those who, struck by the exceptional character of his work, call him God—worked out a reform of Judaism, a reform of such depth, so individualized (si individuelle), that it was in truth a new creation in all its parts. Having attained a higher degree of religious eminence than man had ever reached before, having come to look upon God in the relation of a son to a father, devoted to his work, with an oblivion of all beside, and an abnegation never before so loftily carried out, the victim at last of his idea, and deified by his death, Jesus founded the eternal religion of mankind,—the religion of the soul set free from all priesthood, all worship, all observances; accessible to all races, superior to the distinctions of caste—in one word—absolute. “Woman, the time is come when they will not worship any more in this mountain, nor at Jerusalem, but when the true worshippers will worship in spirit and in truth.”[3] The genial centre to which man, for centuries to come, should trace back his joy, his hopes, his consolation, and his motives for well-doing, was established. The most abundant source of virtue which the sympathetic contact of a sublime perception has made to well up in the heart of man, was opened. The lofty conception of Jesus, scarcely comprehended by his disciples, sustained considerable diminution.

Nevertheless, Christianity prevailed from the first, and prevailed without limit above all other existing forms of faith. Those forms which did not aspire to any absolute worth, which had no solid organization, and which responded to nothing moral, made but feeble resistance. Some efforts made to reform them, in accordance with the new requirements of mankind, and to introduce into them an element of earnestness and morality,—the attempt of Julian, for instance,—completely failed. The Empire, which believed, not without reason, that its very element was threatened by the growth of a new power—the Church—resisted at first most energetically: it finished by adopting the faith which it had battled against. All the people influenced by the culture of Greece and Rome, became Christians; the Germanic nations and the Slaves[4] followed somewhat later. Persia and India alone, of the Indo-European race, preserved, much altered it is true, the old faith of their ancestors, owing to their religious institutions being strongly and closely allied to the State. The Brahmanic race, above all, rendered to the world a scientific service of the highest order, by the preservation, with an exuberance of minute and touching precaution, of the most ancient hymns of that worship, the Vedas.

The religious fertility of the Shemitic race was not yet exhausted. After this unequalled victory, Christianity, taken up by Greek and Latin civilization, had become the property of the West; the East, its birthplace, was just the place where it encountered the greatest obstacles. Arabia especially, towards the seventh century, could not make up its mind to become Christian. Wavering between Judaism and Christianity, between native superstition and memories of the old patriarchal worship, disgusted by the mythological elements which the Indo-European race had introduced into the heart of Christianity, she would return to the religion of Abraham. She founded Islamism. Islamism rose up in its turn with an immense superiority in the midst of the debased religions of Asia. With a single blow it overturned Parsee-ism, which had been strong enough to triumph over Christianity under the Sassanides, and reduced it to the position of a petty sect. India also saw, in turn, but without being converted, the Divine Unity proclaimed victoriously in the midst of her ancient Pantheon. Islamism, in a word, brought over to Monotheism, nearly all those pagan lands which Christianity had not yet converted. It is finishing its mission in our times by the conquest of Africa, which is now becoming almost entirely Mahometan. Thus with a few exceptions of minor importance, the world in a manner has been entirely subdued by the spreading of Shemitic Monotheism.

Are we to admit, then, that the Indo-European nations have completely renounced their individuality in adopting the Shemitic creed? By no means. While adopting the Shemitic religion, we have greatly modified it. Christianity, in its usual acceptation, is in reality our own work; Primitive Christianity, consisting essentially, in the apocalyptic belief, of a kingdom of God yet to come, Christianity such as it appeared to the mind of a St. James, a Papias, was very different from our Christianity, overlaid with metaphysics by the Greek Fathers, and the Scholastic teaching of the middle ages, reduced to a system of morality and charity by the enlightenment of modern times. The victory of Christianity was only secured when it completely cast aside its Jewish clothing; when it became again what it had been in the lofty conception of its Founder, a creation divested of the firm trammels of the Shemitic spirit. This is so true that Jews and Mahometans have nothing but aversion for this religion, the sister of their own; but which, in the hands of another race, has clothed itself with exquisite poetry, the enchanting adornment of romantic legends. Beings, gentle, sensitive, and imaginative, such as the author of The Imitation of Christ, such as the mystics of the middle ages, such as the saints in general, have professed a religion proceeding in truth from the Shemitic mind, but transformed in all its parts, by the genius of modern nations, especially by the Celtic and Germanic races. That depth of sentiment, that tender melancholy, found in the religion of a Francis of Assisi, of a Fra Angelico, were every way opposed to Shemitic genius, essentially hard and dry.

As for the future, gentlemen, I foresee, more and more, the triumph of Indo-European genius. From the sixteenth century, one great fact, till then doubtful, continues to manifest itself with striking energy; it is the decided victory of Europe, it is the accomplishment of the old Shemitic saying: “God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem, and Canaan shall be his servant.”[5]

Until that period, Shemitism was master on its own ground. The Mussulman East surpassed the West, had better armies, and a better policy, and supplied the latter with wealth, learning, and civilization. Now their respective parts are changed. European genius has been developing itself with incomparable grandeur; Islamism, on the contrary, has been as slowly crumbling away; in our times it is falling with a crash. In the present day, the one essential condition for the expansion of European civilization is the destruction of the principle of Shemitic action (chose)—the destruction of the theocratic power of Islamism, and consequently the destruction of Islamism itself; for Islamism can only exist as an official religion: reduce it to the position of a religion, free and individual, and it will perish. Islamism is not a merely State religion, like Catholicism was in France under Louis XIV, and still is in Spain; it is a religion which excludes the State, an organization of which the Papal States offer the only type in Europe. War unceasing is there,—war which will only cease when the last son of Ismael shall have died with misery, or been driven by terror to the depths of the desert. Islamism is the perfect negative of Europe; Islamism is fanaticism, such as Spain in the time of Philip II., and Italy in the time of Pius V., scarcely knew. Islamism is contempt of science, suppression of civil society; it is the frightful weakness of the Shemitic spirit, narrowing the mind of man; closing it against every delicate conception, every fine feeling, every rational research, to place it immovably in front of one unceasing tautology: God is God.

The future, gentlemen, then belongs to Europe, and to Europe alone. Europe will subdue the world, and will spread over it its religion, which is individual right, liberty, respect,—that belief which breathes a something divine into the heart of man. In the course of events, the progress of Indo-European nations will consist in separating itself more and more from the Shemitic mind. Our religion will retain less and less of Judaism; more and more will it resist all political organization in matters concerning the soul. It will become the religion of the heart,—the inmost poetry of each human being. In morality we shall attain to a delicate nicety unknown to the beings of the Old Alliance; we shall become more and more Christians. In politics we shall reconcile two things always ignored by Shemitic nations,—liberty, and a strong political organization. In poetry, we shall require an expression of that instinct of infinity which is at once our delight and our dread: in either case, our true nobility. In philosophy, instead of scholastic dogmatism, we shall open up vistas of the general system of the world. In short, we must study every delicacy of shade, require subtilty instead of dogmatism, the relative instead of the absolute. This is, in my opinion, our future, if the future mean progress. Shall we attain to a more certain knowledge of the destiny of Man and his connection with the Infinite? Shall we understand more clearly the law of the origin of being, the nature of perception, what life is, and what personality? Will the world, without returning to credulity, and while persisting in the path of positive philosophy, find again true joy, ardour, hope, calm contemplation? Will it some day be worth while to live; and will the man who believes in duty, find in that duty his reward? Will that science to which we devote our lives repay us for what we sacrifice to her? I know not. All that is certain is this: in seeking for Truth in a scientific way we shall have performed our duty. If Truth is sad, we shall at least have the consolation of having found it by recognized rules; it may be said that we deserved to find it more consoling; we shall bear this testimony, that we have been true and sincere at heart.

Truth to say, I may not linger on such thoughts. History proves this truth, that there is a transcendent instinct in human nature, which urges it to a nobler goal. The development of mankind is not to be explained by the hypothesis that man is only a finite being; virtue but a refinement of egoism; religion but a cheat. Our toil is not in vain, gentlemen. Whatever the author of The Book of Ecclesiastes may have said, in a moment of depression, science is not the worst pursuit which God has given to the sons of men. It is the best. If all is vanity, he who devotes his life to Truth will not be more deceived than others. If Truth and well-being are real, and of that we are assured beyond all contradiction, they who search for them and love them, are they who will have lived best.

Gentlemen, we shall not meet again: in my next lecture I shall go into the depths of Hebrew Philology, where the greater part of you will not accompany me. But you who are young, to whom I may allow myself to offer counsel and advice, will be here to listen to me. The active zeal which animates you, and which has shewn itself more than once during this lecture in a manner so flattering to me, is praiseworthy in principle, and of good omen; but do not let it degenerate into frivolous agitation. Turn to solid studies; believe that true science is, above all, the result of cultivation of the mind, nobility of heart, independence of judgment. Prepare for our country generations ripe in all things which constitute the glory and ornament of life. Guard against unreflecting impulses, and remember that liberty can only be achieved by seriousness, respect for yourselves and for others, devotion to the public weal, and to that special work which each of us is sent into the world to commence or to continue.



  1. Since this was written M. Renan has been allowed to resume his lectures. Thursdays are to be devoted to Philological Lectures, without political or religious discussion, and Saturdays to Illustrations of the Book of Job.
  2. M. Renan’s views of Judaism and Christianity are peculiar, belonging to the extreme advanced school of theology; and the expression of these views in the following passages led to the suppression of his course of lectures at the College of France, for a time.—Translator’s Note.
  3. Our version:—“Woman, believe me, the hour cometh when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father ........But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth” (John iv. 21 and 23).—Translator’s Note.
  4. The Slaves or the Slavonic race.
  5. Genesis ix. 27.

This work was published before January 1, 1924, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.