Ernest Renan

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In morals, truth is but little prized when it is a mere sentiment, and only attains its full value when realized in the world as fact.

Ernest Renan (February 28, 1823October 12, 1892) was a French philosopher, playwright, historian, and writer.


  • To be free in an age like ours, one must be in a position of authority. That in itself would be enough to make me ambitious.
    • Letter to his elder sister Henriette (1841).
  • As a rule, all heroism is due to a lack of reflection, and thus it is necessary to maintain a mass of imbeciles. If they once understand themselves the ruling men will be lost.
    • Orlando, in Caliban, act 2, sc. 1 (1878).
  • He whom God has touched will always be a being apart: he is, whatever he may do, a stranger among men; he is marked by a sign.
    • Oeuvres Complètes, vol. 3. L’Avenir de la Science (1890).

Vie de Jésus (The Life of Jesus) (1863)[edit]

  • In morals, truth is but little prized when it is a mere sentiment, and only attains its full value when realized in the world as fact.
    • Ch. 5.
  • Never has any one been less a priest than Jesus, never a greater enemy of forms, which stifle religion under the pretext of protecting it. By this we are all his disciples and his successors; by this he has laid the eternal foundation-stone of true religion; and if religion is essential to humanity, he has by this deserved the Divine rank the world has accorded him.
    • Ch. 5.
  • To conceive the good, in fact, is not sufficient; it must be made to succeed among men. To accomplish this less pure paths must be followed.
    • Ch. 5.
  • Jesus, in some respects, was an anarchist, for he had no idea of civil government. That government seems to him purely and simply an abuse.
    • Ch. 7.
  • Let us pardon him his hope of a vain apocalypse, and of a second coming in great triumph upon the clouds of heaven. Perhaps these were the errors of others rather than his own; and if it be true that he himself shared the general illusion, what matters it, since his dream rendered him strong against death, and sustained him in a struggle to which he might otherwise have been unequal?
    • Ch. 17.

Ernest Renan: a Critical Biography (1964)[edit]

By H. W. Wardman, University of London, Athlone Press, 1964

  • I can die when I wish to: that is my elixir of life.
    • The Republic.
  • You may take great comfort from the fact that suffering inwardly for the sake of truth proves abundantly that one loves it and marks one out as being of the elect.
    • Saint Sulpice and the Hidden God.


  • Getting its history wrong is part of being a nation
    • translated by Eric Hobsbawm on p. 12 of Nations and Nationalism Since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality (Cambridge University Press, 1992) from French original ("L'oubli et je dirai même l'erreur historique, sont un facteur essentiel de la formation d'une nation et c'est ainsi que le progrès des études historiques est souvent pour la nationalité un danger"), page 7-8 of Qu’est-ce qu’une nation ?

Quotes about Ernest Renan[edit]

  • There has always been an element of the magical in the style of M. Ernest Renan- an art of saying things in a way to make them beautiful.
    • Henry James, Atlantic Monthly, August 1883.

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