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The Share of the Semitic People in the History of Civilization

By Ernest Renan (1823–1892)

From the Inaugural Address on assuming the Chair of Semitic Languages, in ‘Studies of Religious History and Criticism’

I AM proud to ascend this chair—the most ancient in the College of France—made illustrious in the sixteenth century by eminent men, and in our own generation occupied by a scholar of the merit of M. Quatremère. In creating the College of France as an asylum for liberal science, King Francis I. laid down as the constitutional law of this grand foundation, the complete independence of criticism; the disinterested search for truth; impartial discussion, that knows no rules save those of good taste and sincerity. Precisely this, gentlemen, is the spirit which I would fain bring to the instruction here. I know the difficulties that are inseparable from the chair which I have the honor to occupy. It is the privilege and the peril of Semitic studies, that they touch on the most important problems in the history of mankind. The free mind knows no limit; but the human race at large is far from having reached that stage of serene contemplation in which it has no need of beholding God in this or that particular order of facts, for the very reason that it sees him in everything. Liberty, gentlemen, had it been well understood, would have allowed these opposite claims to exist side by side. I hope that by your favor, this course will prove that they can. As I shall bring to my instructions no dogmatism; as I shall confine myself always to appeals to your reason, to the statement of what I think most probable, leaving you full liberty of judgment, who can complain? Those only who believe they have a monopoly of the truth; but these must renounce the claim to be the masters of the world. In our day Galileo would not go down on his knees to retract what he knew to be the truth….

So much granted, if we ask what the Semitic peoples have contributed to this organic and living whole which is called civilization, we shall find in the first place that in polity we owe them nothing at all. Political life is perhaps the most peculiar and native characteristic of the Indo-European nations. These nations are the only ones that have known liberty, that have reconciled the State with the independence of the individual. To be sure, they are far from having always equally well adjusted these two opposite necessities. But among them are never found those great unitary despotisms, crushing all individuality, reducing man to the condition of a kind of abstract nameless function, as is the case in Egypt, China, and the Mussulman and Tartar despotisms. Examine successively the small municipal republics of Greece and of Italy, the Germanic feudalisms, the grand centralized organizations of which Rome gave the first model, whose ideal reappeared in the French Revolution,—you find always a vigorous moral element, a powerful idea of the public good, sacrifice for a general object. In Sparta individuality was little protected; the petty democracies of Athens and of Italy in the Middle Ages were almost as ferocious as the most cruel tyrant; the Roman Empire became (in part, however, through the influence of the East) an intolerable despotism; feudalism in Germany resulted in regular brigandage; royalty in France under Louis XIV. almost reached the excesses of the dynasties of the Sassanidæ or the Mongols; the French Revolution, while establishing with incomparable energy the principle of unity in the State, often strongly compromised liberty. But swift reactions have always saved these nations from the consequences of their errors. Not so in the East. The East, especially the Semitic East, has known no medium between the utter anarchy of the nomadic Arabs, and bloody unmitigated despotism. The idea of the commonweal, of the public welfare, is totally wanting among these nations. Liberty, true and entire,—such liberty as the Anglo-Saxon peoples have realized,—and grand State organizations such as the Roman Empire and France have created, were equally unknown to them. The ancient Hebrews, the Arabs, have been or are at times the freest of men; but on condition of having the next day a chief who cuts off heads at his own good pleasure. And when this happens, no one complains of violated right: David seizes the sceptre by means of an energetic condottiérie, which does not hinder his being a very religious man, a king after God’s own heart; Solomon ascends the throne and maintains himself there by measures such as sultans in all ages have used, but this does not prevent his being called the wisest of kings. When the prophets storm against royalty, it is not in the name of a political right; it is in the name of theocracy. Theocracy, anarchy, despotism,—such, gentlemen, is a summary of the Semitic polity; happily it is not ours. The political principle drawn from the Holy Scriptures (very badly drawn, it is true) by Bossuet, is a detestable principle. In polity, as in poetry, religion, philosophy, the duty of the Indo-European nations is to seek after nice combinations; the harmony of opposite things; the complexity so totally unknown among the Semitic nations, whose organization has always been of a disheartening and fatal simplicity.

In art and poetry, what do we owe them? In art, nothing. These tribes have but little of the artist; our art comes entirely from Greece. In poetry, nevertheless, without being their tributaries, we have with them more than one bond of union. The Psalms have become in some respects one of our sources of poetry. Hebrew poetry has taken a place with us beside Greek poetry, not as having furnished a distinct order of poetry, but as constituting a poetic ideal,—a sort of Olympus where in consequence of an accepted prestige everything is suffused with a halo of light. Milton, Lamartine, Lamennais, would not exist, or at least would not exist as they are, but for the Psalms. Here again, however, all the shades of expression, all the delicacy, all the depth is our work. The thing essentially poetic is the destiny of man: his melancholy moods, his restless search after causes, his just complaint to heaven. There was no necessity of going to strangers to learn this. The eternal school here is each man’s soul.

In science and philosophy we are exclusively Greek. The investigation of causes, knowledge for knowledge’s own sake, is a thing of which there is no trace previous to Greece,—a thing that we have learned from her alone. Babylon possessed a science; but it had not that pre-eminently scientific principle, the absolute fixedness of natural law. Egypt had some knowledge of geometry, but it did not originate the ‘Elements’ of Euclid. As for the old Semitic spirit, it is by its nature anti-philosophic, anti-scientific. In Job, the investigation of causes is represented as almost an impiety. In Ecclesiastes, science is declared to be a vanity. The author, prematurely surfeited, boasts of having studied everything under the sun, and of having found nothing but vanity. Aristotle, who was almost his contemporary, and who might have said with more reason that he had exhausted the universe, never speaks of his weariness. The wisdom of the Semitic nations never got beyond parables and proverbs. We often hear of Arabian science and philosophy; and it is true that during one or two centuries in the Middle Ages, the Arabs were our masters, but only however until the discovery of the Greek originals. As soon as authentic Greece emerges, this Arabian science and philosophy—these miserable translations—become useless; and it is not without reason that all the philologists of the Renaissance undertake a veritable crusade against them. Moreover, on close examination, we find that this Arabian science had nothing of the Arab in it. Its foundation is purely Greek: among those who originated it, there is not one real Semite; they were Spaniards and Persians writing in Arabic. The Jews of the Middle Ages acted also as simple interpreters of philosophy. The Jewish philosophy of the epoch is unmodified Arabic. One page of Roger Bacon contains more of the true scientific spirit than does all that second-hand science, worthy of respect certainly as a link of tradition, but destitute of all noble originality.

If we examine the question with reference to moral and social ideas, we shall find that the Semitic ethics are occasionally very lofty and very pure. The code attributed to Moses contains elevated ideas of right. The prophets are at times very eloquent tribunes. The moralists, Jesus son of Sirak, and Hillel, reach a surprising grandeur. Let us not forget, finally, that the ethics of the Gospel were first preached in a Semitic tongue. On the other hand, the Semitic nature is in general hard, narrow, egotistical. This race possesses noble passions, complete self-devotions, matchless characters. But there is rarely that delicacy of moral sense which seems to be the especial endowment of the Germanic and Celtic races. Tender, profound, melancholy sentiments, those dreams of the infinite in which all the faculties of the soul blend, that grand revelation 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 task is divided. The moral education of humanity is not the exclusive merit of any race. The reason is quite simple: morals are not taught any more than poetry; fine aphorisms do not make the honest man; each one finds goodness in the loftiness of his nature, in the immediate revelation of his heart.

In industrial pursuits, inventions, external civilization, we owe certainly much to the Semitic peoples. Our race, gentlemen, did not set out with a taste for comfort and for business. It was a moral, brave, warlike race, jealous of liberty and honor, loving nature, capable of sacrifice, preferring many things to life. Trade, the arts of industry, were practiced for the first time on a grand scale by the Semitic tribes; or at least by those speaking a Semitic language,—the Phœnicians. In the Middle Ages, also, the Arabs and the Jews were our instructors in commercial affairs. All European luxury, from ancient times till the seventeenth century, came from the East. I say luxury, and not art: the distance from one to the other is infinite. Greece, which in point of art was immensely superior to the rest of mankind, was not a country of luxury: there the magnificence of the Great King’s palace was spoken of with disdain; and were it permitted to us to see the house of Pericles, we should probably find it hardly habitable. I do not insist on this point, for it would be necessary to consider whether the Asiatic luxury—that of Babylon, for instance—is really due to the Semites; I doubt it, for my part. But one gift they have incontestably made us: a gift of the highest order, and one which ought to place the Phœnicians, in the history of progress, almost by the side of the Hebrews and the Arabs, their brothers,—writing. You know that the characters we use at this day are, through a thousand transformations, those that the Semites used first to express the sounds of their language. The Greek and Latin alphabets, from which all our European alphabets are derived, are nothing else than the Phœnician alphabet. Phonetics, that bright device for expressing each articulate sound by a sign, and for reducing the articulate sound to a small number (twenty-two), is a Semitic invention. But for them, we should perhaps be still dragging along painfully with hieroglyphics. In one sense we may say that the Phœnicians, whose whole literature has so unfortunately disappeared, have thus laid down the essential condition of all vigorous and precise exercise of thought.

But I am eager, gentlemen, to come to the prime service which the Semitic race has rendered to the world,—its peculiar work, its providential mission, if I may so express myself. We owe to the Semitic race neither political life, art, poetry, philosophy, nor science. What then do we owe to them? We owe to them religion. The whole world—if we except India, China, Japan, and tribes altogether savage—has adopted the Semitic religions. The civilized world comprises only Jews, Christians, and Mussulmans. The Indo-European race in particular, excepting the Brahmanic family and the feeble relics of the Parsees, has gone over completely to the Semitic faiths. What has been the cause of this strange phenomenon? How happens it that the nations who hold the supremacy of the world have renounced their own creed to adopt that of the people they have conquered?

The primitive worship of the Indo-European race, gentlemen, was charming and profound, like the imagination of the nations themselves. It was like an echo of nature, a sort of naturalistic hymn, in which the idea of one sole cause appears but occasionally and uncertainly. It was a child’s religion, full of artlessness and poetry, but destined to crumble at the first demand of thought. Persia first effected its reform (that which is associated with the name of Zoroaster) under influences and at an epoch unknown to us. Greece, in the time of Pisistratus, was already dissatisfied with her religion, and was turning towards the East. In the Roman period, the old pagan worship had become utterly insufficient. It no longer addressed the imagination; it spoke feebly to the moral sense. The old myths on the forces of nature had become changed into fables; not unfrequently amusing and ingenious, but destitute of all religious value. It is precisely at this epoch that the civilized world finds itself face to face with the Jewish faith. Based upon the clear and simple dogma of the Divine unity; discarding naturalism and pantheism by the marvelously terse phrase, “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth”; possessing a law, a book, the depository of grand moral precepts and of an elevated religious poetry,—Judaism had an incontestable superiority; and it might have been foreseen then that some day the world would become Jewish,—that is to say, would forsake the old mythology for Monotheism. An extraordinary movement which took place at this epoch in the heart of Judaism itself decided the victory. By the side of its grand and incomparable qualities, Judaism contained the principle of a narrow formalism, of an exclusive and scornful fanaticism; this was the Pharisaic spirit which became later the Talmudic spirit. Had Judaism been merely Phariseeism it would have had no future. But this race had within itself a truly remarkable religious activity. Like all the noble races, moreover, it combined contrary elements: it knew how to react on itself, and to develop at need qualities the very opposite of its defects.

In the midst of the enormous ferment in which the Jewish nation was plunged under the last Asmoneans, there took place in Galilee the most wonderful moral event which history has ever recorded. A matchless man—so grand, that although here all must be judged from a purely scientific point of view, I would not gainsay those who, struck with the exceptional character of his work, call him God—effected a reform in Judaism; a reform so radical, so thorough, that it was in all respects a complete creation. Having reached a higher religious plane than ever man reached before, having attained the point of regarding himself in his relation to God as a son to his father, devoted to his work with a forgetfulness of all else and a self-renunciation never so sublimely practiced before, the victim at last of his idea and deified by death, Jesus founded the eternal religion of humanity,—the religion of the soul, stripped of everything sacerdotal, of creed, of external ceremonies, accessible to every race, superior to all castes, in a word absolute: “Woman, the hour cometh when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father; but when the true worshipers shall worship him in spirit and in truth.” The vital centre was established to which humanity must for centuries refer its hopes, its consolations, its motives for well-doing. The most copious source of virtue that the sympathetic touch of a sublime conscience ever caused to well up in the heart of man was opened. The lofty thought of Jesus, hardly comprehended by his disciples, suffered many lapses. Christianity, notwithstanding, prevailed from the very first; and prevailed supremely over other existing religions. These religions, which pretended to no absolute value, which had no strong organizations, and which represented no moral idea, offered but feeble resistance. Some attempts which were made to reform them in accordance with the new needs of humanity, and to introduce into them an earnest moral element,—the effort of Julian, for instance,—failed completely. The Empire, which clearly saw its principle threatened by the birth of a new power, the Church, resisted at first energetically. It ended by adopting the faith it had opposed. All the nations that were under Greek and Latin influence became Christian; the Germanic and Slavic peoples came in a little later. Persia and India alone of the Indo-European race—thanks to their very strong religious institutions, which are closely allied to their polity—preserved, though much modified, the ancient worship of their forefathers. The Brahmanic race, especially, rendered to the world a scientific service of the highest kind, by preserving with a minute and touching excess of precaution the oldest hymns of their faith, the Vedas.

But after this incomparable victory the religious fecundity of the Semitic race was not exhausted. Christianity, absorbed by Greek and Latin civilization, had become a Western institution. The East, its cradle, was precisely the land in which it encountered the most formidable obstacles. Arabia in particular, in the seventh century, could not make up its mind to become Christian. Hesitating between Judaism and Christianity, native superstitions and the remembrance of the old patriarchal faith, recoiling from the mythologic elements which the Indo-European race had introduced into the heart of Christianity, Arabia wished to return to the religion of Abraham; she founded Islamism. Islamism, in its turn, appeared immensely superior amidst the debased religions of Asia. With one breath it overturned Parsism, which had been vigorous enough under the Sassanidæ to triumph over Christianity, and reduce it to the condition of an insignificant sect. India in its turn saw, but without being converted, the Divine unity proclaimed victoriously in the midst of its obsolete pantheon. Islamism, in a word, won over to Monotheism almost all the heathen whom Christianity had not yet converted. It is finishing its mission in our days by the conquest of Africa, which is becoming at this time almost wholly Mussulman. With a few exceptions, of secondary importance, the world has been thus conquered entire by the monotheistic apostleship of the Semites.

Do we mean to say that the Indo-European nations, in adopting the Semitic dogma, have completely given up their own individuality? No indeed. In adopting the Semitic religion, we have modified it profoundly. Christianity, as popularly understood, is in reality our work. Primitive Christianity, consisting essentially of the apocalyptic belief in a Kingdom of God, which was about to come; Christianity as it existed in the mind of a St. James, of a Papias,—was very different from our Christianity, incumbered with metaphysics by the Greek Fathers and with scholasticism by the Middle Ages, and by the progress of modern times reduced to a teaching of morality and charity. The victory of Christianity was secured only when it broke completely its Jewish shell, when it became again what it had been in the lofty purpose of its founder,—a creation released from the narrow trammels of the Semitic mind. This is so true that the Jews and Mussulmans feel only aversion to this religion, the sister of their own, but which in the hands of another race has clothed itself with an exquisite poetry, with a delicious attire of romantic legends. Refined, sensitive, imaginative souls, such as the author of the ‘Imitation,’ the mystics of the Middle Ages, and the saints in general, professed a religion which had indeed sprung from the Semitic genius, but had been transformed from its very foundation by the genius of modern nations, especially of the Celts and Germans. That depth of sentimentalism, that species of religious languor of a Francis d’Assisi, of a Fra Angelico, were the precise opposite of the Semitic genius, which is essentially hard and dry.

As regards the future, gentlemen, I see in it more and more the triumph of the Indo-European genius. Since the sixteenth century an immense event, until then undecided, has been coming out with striking vigor. It is the definitive victory of Europe, the accomplishment of this old Semitic proverb: “Let God increase Japhet, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem, and let Canaan (Cham?) be his servant.”

Till that time the Semitic spirit had been master on its soil. The Mussulman East defeated the West; had better arms and a better political system; sent it riches, knowledge, civilization. Henceforward the parts are changed. European genius rises with peerless grandeur; Islamism, on the contrary, is slowly decomposing,—in our days it is falling with a crash. At the present time, the essential condition of a diffused civilization is the destruction of the peculiarly Semitic element, the destruction of the theocratic power of Islamism; consequently the destruction of Islamism itself: for Islamism can exist only as an official religion; as soon as it shall be reduced to the state of a free personal religion, it will perish. Islamism is not merely a State religion, as Catholicism was in France under Louis XIV., as it still is in Spain: it is religion excluding the State; it is an organization the type of which, in Europe, the Pontifical States alone exhibited. There is the endless strife; the strife which will cease only when the last son of Ishmael shall have died of misery, or shall have been driven by terror into the depths of the desert. Islam completely negatives Europe; Islam is fanaticism, such as Spain under Philip II. and Italy under Pius V. have scarcely known; Islam is contempt for science, suppression of civil society; it is the appalling simplicity of the Semitic spirit cramping the human intellect, closing it against every delicate thought, every fine feeling, every rational inquiry, to confront it with an eternal repetition:—God is God.

The future, gentlemen, belongs then to Europe, and to Europe alone. Europe will conquer the world; and spread through it her religion, which is law, liberty, respect for man,—the belief that there is something Divine in the heart of humanity. In all departments, progress for the Indo-European people will consist in departing farther and farther from the Semitic spirit. Our religion will become less and less Jewish; more and more will it reject all political organizations as connected with the affairs of the soul. It will become the religion of the heart, the innermost poetry of every soul. In ethics we shall cultivate a refinement unknown to the austere natures of the Old Alliance; we shall become more and more Christian. In polity we shall reconcile two things which the Semitic nations have always ignored,—liberty and a strong State organization. From poetry we shall demand expression for that instinct of the infinite which is at once our joy and our torment,—at all events our greatness. From philosophy, instead of the absolute of the scholastics, we shall demand delicate studies on the general system of the universe. In everything we shall seek after fine distinctions,—subtlety instead of dogmatism, the relative in place of the absolute. There is the future, as I anticipate it, if the future is to belong to progress. Shall we attain a clearer view of the destiny of man and his relations with the infinite? Shall we know more surely the law of the origin of beings, the nature of conscience, what is life and personality? Without lapsing into credulity, and still persisting in its path of positive philosophy, will the world recover its joy, its ardor, its hope, its deeper thoughts? Will existence become again worth the possessing, and will the man who believes in duty find in duty his reward? This science to which we consecrate our life,—will it render back to us what we sacrifice to it? I know not. But this is certain, that in seeking out truth by scientific methods we shall have done our duty. If truth be cheerless, we shall at least have the consolation of having honestly discovered it: we may say that we deserved to find it more consoling,—still, we will bear this witness in our hearts, that we have been thoroughly sincere.

To tell the truth, I cannot dwell on such thoughts. History demonstrates that there is in human nature a transcendent instinct that urges it towards a nobler aim. The development of man is inexplicable on the hypothesis that man is only a being with an already finished destiny, virtue only a refined egotism, religion but a chimera. Let us work on, then, gentlemen. Whatever the author of Ecclesiastes may say in a moment of discouragement, science is not “the meanest occupation that God has given to the sons of men.” It is the best. If all be vanity, he who has consecrated his life to truth will be no more duped than others. If all the good and true be real,—and we are sure that they are,—their seeker and lover will have unquestionably breathed the finest spirit.

We shall not meet again, gentlemen. At my next lecture, I shall plunge into Hebraic philology, where the greater number of you will not follow me. But I pray those who are young, and to whom I may be allowed to offer a word of counsel, to favor me with their attention. The impulse which is in you, and which has shown itself more than once during this lecture in a manner so honorable to me, is praiseworthy in its principle and of good promise; but do not let it degenerate into frivolous activity. Direct your attention to solid studies; believe that the liberal thing par excellence is cultivation of mind, nobleness of heart, independence of judgment. Prepare for our country generations ripe for all that makes the glory and the ornament of life. Beware of rash enthusiasms; and remember that liberty is won only by earnestness, respect for ourselves and others, devotion to the commonweal, and to the special work that each of us in this world is called upon to establish or to continue.