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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Motives and Conduct

By Ernest Renan (1823–1892)

From the ‘Recollections of My Youth’: Translation of C. B. Pitman

I HAD always had an idea of writing, but it had never occurred to me that it would bring me in any money. I was greatly astonished, therefore, when a man of pleasant and intelligent appearance called upon me in my garret one day, and after complimenting me upon several articles which I had written, offered to publish them in a collected form. A stamped agreement which he had with him specified terms which seemed to me so wonderfully liberal, that when he asked me if all my future writings should be included in the agreement, I gave my assent. I was tempted to make one or two observations; but the sight of the stamp stopped me, and I was unwilling that so fine a piece of paper should be wasted. I did well to forego them, for M. Michel Lévy must have been created by a special decree of Providence to be my editor. A man of letters who has any self-respect should write in only one journal and in one review, and should have only one publisher. M. Michel Lévy and myself always got on very well together. At a subsequent date, he pointed out to me that the agreement which he had prepared was not sufficiently remunerative for me, and he substituted for it one much more to my advantage. I am told that he has not made a bad speculation out of me. I am delighted to hear it. In any event, I may safely say that if I possessed a fund of literary wealth it was only fair that he should have a large share of it; as but for him I should never have suspected its existence.

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

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

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

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

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

My clerical ideas have exercised a still greater influence over me in all that relates to the rules of morality. I should have looked upon it as a lack of decorum if I had made any change in my austere habits upon this score. The world at large, in its ignorance of spiritual things, believes that men only abandon the ecclesiastical calling because they find its duties too severe. I should never have forgiven myself if I had done anything to lend even a semblance of reason to views so superficial. With my extreme conscientiousness I was anxious to be at rest with myself; and I continued to live in Paris the life which I had led in the seminary…. Women have, as a rule, understood how much respect and sympathy for them my affectionate reserve implied. In fine, I have been beloved by the four women whose love was of the most comfort to me: my mother, my sister, my wife, and my daughter. I have had the better part, and it will not be taken from me; for I often fancy that the judgments which will be passed upon us in the valley of Jehoshaphat will be neither more nor less than those of women, countersigned by the Almighty.

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

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

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

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

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