Theories of Race

Ernest Renan

  • Ernest Renan's portrait

    Ernest Renan



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The oeuvre of Ernest Renan—historian, linguist, philosopher, Orientalist—is characterized by vast ambition, immense scale, and trenchant phrasing. His subjects include global history, nations, epochs, languages and races. His approach does not make for precision, and Renan was able to exploit and contribute to the ambivalence in the concept of race in the discourse of his day, referring to races in biological, cultural, historical, and linguistic terms.

Like most others, Renan never established a clear difference between race and other terms such as species, types, or varieties. While he believed that “race was a decisive fact in history,” the nature and implications of that fact were not always entirely clear, inasmuch as he spoke of the Germanic race, the Semitic race, the Aryan [also Arian] race, the white race, the barbarous race, the degenerate races, the Celtic race, the Indian race, the Indo-European race, and others, all in a nontechnical or vernacular sense. Like Michelet, he sometimes spoke of races within races, and often referred to the human race. Despite or perhaps because of this imprecision, however, Renan—who was by the end of his life a professor of Hebrew, an acclaimed scholar of Semitic languages, a Grand Officer in the Legion of Honor, a member of the Académie Française, and an administrator at the College de France—was extremely influential in promoting the importance of race as a factor in the study of history and culture.

Renan has been both praised for his extraordinary learning and attacked as a bigot, the latter charge often supported by reference to his friendship with Gobineau. A number of passages, some of which appear below, seem to exemplify a form of “Republican racism” through which the colonial powers justified their domination of undeveloped and otherwise undefended cultures. Other passages in Renan support the argument that racial differences are associated with intellectual or cultural differences, and fixed in nature. He did not hesitate to rank races, and his rankings followed conventional lines.

Renan was particularly concerned with the differences between the two groups present at the dawn of time: the Aryans, whom he credited with both a capacity for myth and the faculty of rationality—a race, he said on one occasion, “of masters and soldiers”—and the Semites. The latter group had, in Renan’s account, a capacity for religious invention, giving birth to the three monotheistic or “Abrahamic” religions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. The philosopher Hannah Arendt said that Renan’s first book, General History of the Semitic Languages (1847; the original version of the text excerpted here as Histoire Générale et Systeme Comparé des Langues Sémitiques) was the first occasion on which the distinction between Semites and Aryans was represented as a decisive division of the human species (see Arendt in Further Reading, 174). But while Renan (like Herder, Max Müller, Adolph Pictet, Rudolf Friedrich Grau, and others) sometimes speaks of Aryans and Semites as different races, he also argues that both are sub-groups within the “race blanche” (white race), which he also refers to, with evident reluctance, as the Caucasian race. However conceived, the Aryan-Semite division worked to the great disadvantage of Semites, and especially to Muslims, for whose resistance to modernity and enlightenment Renan had nothing but contempt, even expressing the hope that Islam would die “an ignominious death.”*

On the other hand, however, Renan, in many respects an advanced and liberal thinker, repeatedly condemned what we would now call racial prejudice, denounced American slavery, and was regarded by many contemporary Jews as an ally in the struggle against anti-Semitism. The book by which he was chiefly known in his lifetime, The Life of Jesus, published in 1863 (by the Lévy Brothers publishing house), describes Jesus as a Jew, an assertion considered so scandalous that Renan lost his professorship at the College de France. Elsewhere, Renan asserts that Christianity is “primarily a Jewish fact” whose “germ is wholly Jewish” (The Future of Science, 262, 263). And he begins his history of Semitic languages by crediting Semites with “at least half of humanity’s intellectual works.”

One way of beginning to account for such apparent discrepancies is to note that Renan’s primary subject is the grand sweep of history, from the earliest beginnings of civilization to the present. In most of his work, including virtually all of it that contains expressions of what now seems to be racial animus, Renan is not focused on present injustices but on the progress of humanity, which he approaches from what he describes as the blended perspective of a scientist and a poet, a perspective from which, as he said in The Future of Science, “the whole of human development may be of no more consequence than the moss or lichen with which every moist surface is covered” (xv).

This perspective did not allow for empathy for suffering or outrage over injustice. “Inequality,” Renan said in that early work, was “one of nature’s written laws, it is the consequence of liberty and the liberty of the individual is a necessary postulate of human progress. This progress implies a great sacrifice of individual happiness” (xi). History advances, in Renan’s view, by progressing through the dynamic imbalances created by inequalities, moving from stage to stage toward a distant goal—the full realization of the rational, liberal modern spirit. In this context, racial differences could be considered both facts of nature and necessary for human progress, and the abuses and injustices suffered by any group of people could be explained if not justified as the side-effects of a pitiless but ultimately benign higher logic of the “divine scheme.”

The unusual scale of Renan’s thinking might, then, help explain some of his tolerance for local violences, a tolerance that might otherwise seem to reflect mere indifference to human suffering. But his understanding of race is also a critical factor. In a sense, Renan did not believe in race. A theological monogenist, he accepted the derivation of humanity from the sons of Noah and maintained that all human groups possessed the same faculties, differing only in the application and extension of those faculties. But as a functional polygenist, he argued that the earliest human groups were specifically adapted to their climates and environments, with their adaptations constituting a racial identity. Renan’s argument is that in the earliest dawn not of humanity but of civilization, race was an inescapable and fundamental fact controlling all aspects of human relations, including the occasional conquest of lesser races by superior races. Over the course of time, he allowed, groups intermingled and biology became less important as a source of identity than cultural practices and traditions, so that today, as he wrote in 1882, “there is no pure race.”**

The most revealing indicator of cultural identity, and the one to which Renan devoted by far his most sustained effort, was language. Philology, the historical study of languages, was for Renan “an exact science of things intellectual,” a master-key to the worldview and orientation of a given culture (Future of Science, 137). Over the course of a five-volume history of Semitic languages, Renan identified the features of the Semitic worldview, discovering in these languages a spirit of unity and simplicity, a tendency to absolutism and dogma, and an inflexible rigidity. The strengths of this worldview were also its limitations. Historically crucial in the advancement of humankind, the monotheism of the desert had in recent centuries come to represent an archaism that limited the capacity of Jews and especially Muslims to participate in the rational, scientific, cosmopolitan, racially blended civilization toward which history was advancing. Renan’s erudite distinctions between the Semitic and the Indo-European languages would be cited by others who wished to draw an even brighter line than he between Jews and Aryans. His liberal convictions notwithstanding, Renan is now often placed in the intellectual lineage that ultimately produced in the Europe of the twentieth century the phenomenon of “mother-tongue fascism.”***

Renan’s thinking on race also forged a link between language and nation. In his most famous essay, “What is a Nation?” (1882), he attacked the notion, promoted by Gobineau and many others, that European nations had a racially homogeneous pan-Germanic core. All nations, Renan argued, were amalgams, compounds of various peoples who had been forged into a unity, but who had simply forgotten the invasions, flights, exterminations, brutality, and general disorder out of which their identity had been precipitated. The essence of a nation, he said in a memorable formulation, “is that all individuals have many things in common, and also that they have forgotten many things” (251). Successful nations are those that have achieved the right combination of remembering and forgetting, sometimes by encouraging citizens to believe in a fictitious racial identity that could not survive historical examination. While some spoke of a “Frankish” core to the French nation, Renan described France in an essay on “Islam and Science” as “Roman by language, Greek by civilization, and Jewish by religion” (in What is a Nation?, 264).

The only exception, and that partial and limited, to the general rule of modern mixture was the Celtic race, the remnants of which still survived in his native Brittany (as well as in Wales, Cornwall, northern Scotland, and Ireland). In this ancient, relatively isolated group—sometimes thought to be the most ancient inhabitants of Europe—Renan saw traces of a culture that has remained almost “pure from all admixture of alien blood.” This purity enabled Renan to describe, in “Poetry of the Celtic Races,” the Celtic race with great precision, drawing particular attention to the extraordinary “imaginative power” that had produced great poetry but had also contributed to the current pathetic and impoverished state of the Celtic race that, through its affinity for fantasy and inclination to drunkenness, had “worn itself out taking dreams for reality.” The Celts represented an exception to Renan’s general principle that biological races have long since lost their relevance, but the beleaguered, marginal, and disordered state of the Celtic race underscored the fate of racial purity in a complex world. For other views of the Celts, see Meiners, Gobineau, Pinkerton, Knox, and Vogt.

In Renan’s work we can see a comprehensive account of racial pluralism and mingling that was more widely accepted in Europe than in the United States, where the polarity of white and black, aggravated by the institution of slavery, tended to dominate discussions of race. Also noteworthy is Renan’s suggestion in The Future of Science that the various issues raised by the question of human origins should be addressed by “different sciences,” an indication of the growing authority of academic disciplines, and of the difficulty of gaining a comprehensive understanding.

The selections below include not only Renan’s descriptions of various races and passages from his history of the Semitic languages, but also passages from The Future of Science, a book Renan wrote as a very young man in reaction to the revolutions of 1848 but did not publish until the end of his life, when he finally issued it with a new preface—but no table of contents and no chapter titles. The book contains, in addition to reflections on Renan’s general approach, some strikingly unguarded formulations of positions he would later modify but not abandon.

*Quoted in Maurice Olender, The Languages of Paradise (Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 1992), 170n32.  

**Ernest Renan, “What is a Nation?” in Ernest Renan, What is a Nation? and Other Political Writings, trans. and ed., M. F. N. Giglioli (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018), 247-63, 255.  See also, “Islam and Science,” 264-80.

***See Christopher M. Hutton, “Linguistics and the Third Reich:  Mother-Tongue Fascism, Race and the Science of Langage (London: Routledge, 1999).  

The Future of Science: Ideas of 1848


Chapter IX

There can be no doubt as to the existence of mankind having had a beginning. It is equally certain that the appearance of mankind on earth was accomplished in accordance with the permanent laws of nature, and that the first facts of his psychological and physiological life, though so strangely different from those that characterize his actual condition were the development pure and simple of the laws that are still in force to-day, operating in a medium profoundly different. Hence we are confronted by an important problem, if ever there was one, and from the solution of which would spring data of capital importance on the whole of the meaning of human life. And in my opinion this problem should be divided into six subordinate questions all of which should be solved by different sciences.

1st. Ethnographic Question.— If and up to what point the races actually existent are deducible from one another. Were there several centres of creation? which are they, etc.?—The investigator should therefore have at command the ensemble of the whole of modern ethnography, in its certain as well as hypothetical parts, also the anatomical and linguistic knowledge without which the study of ethnography is impossible.

2nd. Chronological Question. — At what epoch did mankind or each race make its appearance on earth? — This question should be resolved by the collating of two means; on the one hand, the geological data; on the other, the data supplied by the antique chronologies and above all by the monuments. Hence the author must be learned in geology, and well versed in the antiquities of China, Egypt, of India, of the Hebrews, etc.

3rd. Geographical Question. — At which point of the globe did mankind or the diverse races take their starting point? — Here the knowledge of geography in its most philosophic part would be necessary and above all the deepest scientific knowledge of antique literatures and the traditions of the various peoples. Languages in this instance supplying the principal element the author should be an able linguist, or if not, he should at any rate have at his disposal the results acquired by comparative philology.

4th. Physiological Question. — Possibility and mode of apparition of organic life and of human life. The laws that have produced that apparition, which is still continued in the hidden corners of nature. To deal with this side of the question, a thorough knowledge of comparative physiology is necessary. The author should be able to form an opinion on the most delicate point of that science.

5th. Psychological Question. — The condition of mankind and of the human intellect at the first stages of its existence. Primitive languages. Origin of thought and of language. Must have a deep insight into the secrets of spontaneous psychology, an habitual practice of the higher branches of psychology and philosophical sciences. Must be thoroughly versed in the experimental study of the child and the first exercise of its reason, in the experimental study of the savage, consequently must be extensively acquainted with the literature of the great travellers, and as much as possible have travelled himself among the primitive peoples which are fast disappearing from the face of the earth, at any rate in their original condition of spontaneous impulse; must have a knowledge of all primitive literatures, of the comparative genius of the various peoples, of comparative literature, a refined and scientific taste, tact, and spontaneous initiative; a childlike and at the same time serious nature, susceptible of great enthusiasm with regard to the spontaneous and capable of reproducing it within himself, within the very seat of deeply reflected thought.

6th. Historical Question. — The history of mankind before the definite apparition of reflected thought.

I am convinced that there is a science of the origins of mankind, and that it will be constructed one day not by abstract speculation but by scientific research. What human life in the actual condition of science would suffice to explore all the sides of this single problem? And still, how can it be resolved without the scientific study of the positive data? And if it be not resolved how can we say that we know man and mankind? He who would contribute to the solution of this problem, even by a very imperfect essay, would do more for philosophy than by half a century of metaphysical meditations. (148-51)

. . . all the Semitic religions are essentially monotheistic; the race has never had a developed mythology. All the Indo-Germanic religions are, on the contrary, either pantheistic or dualistic and boast a vast mythological or symbolical development. It would seem that among the peoples the creative faculties with regard to religions were in inverse ratio to the philosophical faculties. The premeditated, independent, severe, courageous—in one word—philosophical search after truth seems to have been the inheritance of that Indo-Germanic race which from the uttermost confines of India to the farthest extremes of the West and the North, from the most distant centuries to modern times, has endeavoured to explain God, man and the world to rationalistic sense, and has left behind it, posted as it were, at the different stages of its history, those systems, those philosophical creations, subject always and everywhere to the unvarying and necessary laws of a logical development. The Semites, on the contrary, who do not show us a single attempt at analysis, who have not produced a single school of native philosophy, are par excellence the race of religions, destined to give them birth and to propagate them. Theirs is the privilege of those bold and spontaneous flights of natures, still in the flush of youth, penetrating without an effort and by a most natural movement as it were into the very bosom of the infinite, and descending from it thoroughly drenched with divine dew, then letting their enthusiasm exhale in a form of worship, in a mystic doctrine, in a revealed book. . . . And in fact is it not a thing worthy of remark that the three religions which up till now have played the greatest part in the history of civilization, the three religious stamped with a special character of stability, fruitfulness and proselytism, and moreover bound to one another by such close relations as to make them seem three branches of a same trunk, three versions — not equally beautiful and pure— of a self-same idea, is it not worthy of remark that all three should have been born on Semitic ground, and from there should have started forth to the conquest of high destinies. The distance between Jerusalem and Sinai, and between Sinai and Mecca is but a few miles. (266-68)

Inequality is legitimate whenever inequality is necessary for the good of humanity. A society is entitled to what is necessary for its existence, however great may be the apparent injustice resulting for the individual.

The principle that there are no such things as individuals is true as a physical fact, but not as a teleological proposition. In the plane of things, the individual disappears; the large shape mapped out by individuals generally is alone of any account. Socialists are not really consistent when they preach equality, for equality is derived mainly from the consideration of the individual, and inequality is only conceivable from the point of view of society. The possibility and the requirements of society, the interests of civilization, take precedence of all the rest. Thus, individual liberty, emulation and competition being conditional to all civilization, the present iniquity is better than the final servitude of socialism. Thus, learned and lettered culture being absolutely indispensable in the scheme of humanity, even when it can only fall to the share of a small minority, this flagrant privilege would be excused by necessity. For there is not, as a matter of fact, any tradition for happiness, but there is a tradition for science. I will go so far as to say that if at any time slavery was necessary for the existence of society, slavery was legitimate, for in such a case the slaves were slaves of humanity, slaves of the divine scheme — a thing which is no more repugnant than the existence of so many beings inexorably attached to the yoke of an idea which is above them and which they do not understand. . . .The subordination of animals to man, that of the sexes the one to the other, does not shock any one, because it is the work of nature and of the inevitable organization of things. At bottom, the hierarchy of men according to their degree of perfection does not shock one’s ideas of fitness a whit more. What is shocking is that the individual, of his own right and for his personal enjoyment, should enslave his fellow-man in order to have self-indulgence at his expense. The inequality is revolting when we consider solely the personal and egotistical advantage which the superior derives from the inferior; it is natural and right if considered as an inevitable law of society, the transitory condition at all events of its perfection. Those who envisage rights, like the rest, as being always rigorously the same, launch anathemas against the most necessary facts of history. But this way of looking at things has grown obsolete; the human mind has passed from the absolute to the historical, envisaging everything from the point of view of becoming. Rights create themselves like other things; they are created, not, of course, by positive laws, but by the successive exaltation of humanity . . . . All rights must be conquered, and those who cannot conquer them prove that they are not ripe for these rights, that these rights do not exist for them, unless it be potentially. The freeing of the negroes was neither achieved nor deserved by the negroes, but by the progress in civilization of their masters. . . .

We Frenchmen, who are gifted with an absolute and exclusive spirit, fall into strange illusions in this respect, and we often reason much in this way, which is a very scholastic one. “Such a system of institution would be intolerable with us, at the point we have reached; it must be so, therefore, everywhere, and it must have been so always.” The simple minded carry this to a most delightfully ludicrous point, and a few months ago they wanted to make all Europe republican willy nilly. We want to establish everywhere the government which suits us and to which we are entitled. We think that we should be doing wonders if we established the constitutional régime among the savages of Oceania, and we shall soon be sending diplomatic notes to the Grand Turk to advise him to call together a Parliament. We reason in the same way with regard to the emancipation of the blacks. Assuredly, if there is a reform which is urgent and ripe this is the one. But we conclude that we are without transition to apply to the negro the régime of individual liberty which suits civilized people like ourselves, not reflecting that what is above all things necessary is to educate these unhappy creatures, and that this régime is not suitable for doing so. The best system to be followed for the education of the negro races is that which Providence has followed in the education of humanity, for it is not, seemingly, by chance that it has made its selection. Look by how many stages the peoples have passed. It is certain that civilization cannot be improvised, that it requires a long course of discipline, and that it is doing a disservice to uncultivated races to emancipate them all at once. I imagine that they need to traverse a state analogous to the ancient theocracies. Slavery does not elevate the negro, nor does liberty. True, he will sleep all day, or will run, like a child, about the woods. Abolitionism carried to an extreme betrays a profound ignorance of the psychology of humanity. I imagine, moreover, that the scientific and experimental study of the education of barbarous races will become one of the most striking problems offered to the mind of Europe, when the attention of the continent can for a moment be taken off from itself.

The history of humanity is not only the history of its enfranchisement, it is above all the history of its education. What would humanity be if it had not traversed the ancient theocracies and the severe codes of a Lycurgus? The whip has been a necessity in the education of humanity. (355-59)

Histoire Générale et Système Comparé des Langues Sémitiques


It would be to push to excess the pantheism in history to place all the races on an equal footing, and on the pretext of the habitual excellence of human nature, to seek in its various combinations the same plenitude and wealth. I am, thus the first to acknowledge that the Semitic race, compared to the Indo-European race, truly represents an inferior combination of human nature. It has attained neither the spiritual heights that India or Germania alone knew, nor the sense of measure and of perfect beauty that Greece bequeathed to the neo-Latin nations, nor the delicate and profound sensibility which is the dominant characteristic of Celtic peoples. The Semitic conscience is clear, but not very expansive; it understands unity marvelously, but does not know how to reach multiplicity. MONOTHEISM summarizes and explains every idea of character.

“Intellectual and Moral Reform” (La reforme intellectuelle et morale)


On the whole, colonization is a political necessity. A nation that does not colonize is irrevocably destined to socialism, the war of the rich and of the poor. The conquest of a country with an inferior race by a superior race that established themselves there and govern is nothing shocking. England practiced this type of colonization in India; it was advantageous for India, humanity in general as well as for England. The Germanic conquest of the 5th and 6th century has become, in Europe, the basis of all conservation and legitimacy. As much as the conquests between equal races must be blamed as much as the regeneration of the inferior or degenerate races by the superior races [which] is part of the provincial order of things for humanity. With us, the common man is nearly always a déclassé nobleman, his heavy hand is better suited to handling the sword than the menial tool. Rather than work, he chooses to fight, that is, he returns to his first estate. Regere imperio populos [to rule mankind and make the world obey], that is our vocation. Pour forth this all-consuming activity onto countries which, like China, are crying aloud for foreign conquest. Turn the adventurers who disturb European society into a vers sacrum, a horde like those of the Franks, the Lombards, or the Normans; and every man will be in his right role. Nature has made a race of workers, the Chinese race, who have wonderful manual dexterity and almost no sense of honor; govern them with justice, levying from them, in return for the blessing of such a government, an ample allowance for the conquering race, and they will be satisfied; --a race of tillers of the soil, the Negro; treat him with kindness and humanity, and all will be as it should; --a race of masters and soldiers, the European race. Reduce this noble race to working in the ergastulum [dungeon] like Negroes and Chinese, and they rebel. . . . But the life at which our workers rebel would make a Chinese or a peasant happy, as they are not military creatures in the least. Let each one do what he is made for, and all will be well.

Hannah Arendt, “Race-Thinking Before Racism,” in The Origins of Totalitarianism (Orlando:  Harvest, 1976; orig. pub., 1948), 158-84.  

Maurice Olender, The Languages of Paradise: Race, Religion, and Philology, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992).  

Robert D. Priest, “Ernest Renan’s Race Problem,” The Historical Journal, vol. 58 (March 2015) 1:  309-30.