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But, true to his idealistic spirit, he still clung to the religious emotions and aspirations which no longer had any basis of truth.
The ordinary man, who is less of a dreamer than Renan, can find nothing to believe in a fiction like this. If the meaning and the heart be thus torn out of life, it is all very well to say to him, as Renan has said: “Religion consists, for all of us, in singing while we do our work, and in praising God, from morning till night, by cheerfulness, good humor, and patience." The man will merely answer: “To what end is all this? You say there is no God, how then can we praise him? Why ask us to keep on living our life in terms which you expressly declare have no meaning whatever.” Renan felt that the mass of common workers in the world, if deprived of their religion, could find no comfort or hope in such vague fancies as these. And his solution of this difficulty was heroic. “Better,” he said, “that the people should worship in a narrow and false creed, than be told a truth which they cannot comprehend, and which can only lead them astray.” So he would have them still bring their sorrows and hopes to a God who he says does not exist. And, more than this, the priest, who knows that this is a mockery, is serving the great cause of truth and righteousness by keeping up the pious delusion! Such a cynical notion as this can only come from one whose religion is full of inconsistency. Renan had tried to be a thorough skeptic; but his old idealistic and religious nature held him back; and he contented himself with pleasant emotions and aspirations, the very objects of which he had set himself to disprove; satisfied himself with an illusion, because he had not the courage to face the doubt which underlies it; made of the mere fragments of a faith which he had destroyed, a new belief which he presented to the world as greater and better than the lost faith. And with all the weakness of his reasoning and the real contradiction of his whole position, he stood for serious men as their guide in matters of faith.
It is only just, however, to glance at another and a sounder side of Renan's work. This odd mixture of idealism and the scientific spirit actually gave keenness and depth to his treatment of historical and social problems. Almost everything he wrote in this direction is suggestive. The Revolution of '48 in France and the war with Prussia in '70, in particular, were studied closely by him; and no one in France at these crises spoke with so sane a voice. Many of his hard and shrewd remarks fall strangely from the lips of an idealist. But in these matters he has turned Philistine, and is thoroughly at home with the plain facts of life. This rôle of clear-sighted and cynical politician is one which he assumes with astonishing skill. And instead of advocating as we might well suppose, a state of ideal liberty, and of brotherly love between nations, his teaching is exactly the opposite of this. Germany, his type of a successful nation, is strong because she worked out her own organization with cynical selfishness; sought her own ends and gave nothing to the world; but accomplished this by the devotion and self-sacrifice of the individual citizen. Of the future of his own country his prophecy was not hopeful. France can never expect victory over Germany, for she has chosen the worst part, and has sacrificed her national strength to the freedom and luxury of the individual. And though some great impulse may stir such a state from its devotion to wealth and materialism ; still such impulses must grow more and more rare.
All this is of the soundest and the sanest. Such convictions would pass for those of a hard headed conservative in politics; of a practical philosopher who can lay his finger exactly on the spot where national life is ailing. Yet even in this rôle, his idealism at times carried him far into the realm of what is visionary. In his vague way he looked forward to the establishment of a new aristocracy of the intellect; for which, oddly enough, he expected that the lower classes would willingly sacrifice themselves. This sort of thing was Renan's notion of the millennium ; the establishment of the kingdom of God, with the divine element left out. All this may seem wild and absurd, and in odd contrast to his shrewd political wisdom. Yet such a Utopia, as he built in his fancy, distant and visionary as it is, is in the true Celtic color; and is of a piece with that fair and sunny isle of St. Brandan which lies, according to their legends, in the midst of a stormy northern ocean.
Now that the immediate effect of his work has passed by, we may estimate justly Renan's weakness and strength. His most prominent characteristic is unquestionably his strange dual nature. Now we have the modern thinker who hails science as the only guide to life. The next moment he is the pure idealist, the Celt, clinging to outworn ideals and visionary hopes. In all his works the same twofold character ; he is Legitimist and Republican; pronounced skeptic and man of deep faith; an incurable visionary and at the same time a hard, matterof-fact politician. As surely as one of these conflicting sides of his nature gets the upper hand, so surely does the other appear with its startling contrast. When he is striving to be most matter-of-fact, a note of his idealism is struck, and his whole reasoning rings false. When, on the other hand, he is in his most idealistic mood, his other nature calls him cynically back, to stare the plain, unharmonized facts of life in the face.
Renan interests us because he embodies supremely one attitude of mind of men of thought in his time—a state of mind he did much himself to create. The faith of these men is lost. They are forced to hold science alone as certainty. The first article of this modern creed is that by science we must read the meaning of life. But they cannot take heart to say with the Positivists: “Let us confess that we do not know and talk no more about what we cannot comprehend. Let us give ourselves to the present, the actual in life; change the subject and ask no more idle questions about its meaning.” These men cannot help clinging to vague dreams and hopes, that are really but echoes of a faith they have not wholly lost. They feel sadly that without faith in the ideal of life, in its invisible realities, the soul is gone out of life, and it is no more worth the living. Hence Renan was ever building vague and unsatisfactory beliefs, speaking in terms which belong only to the language of faith-panegyrizing a courage and trust which have no meaning except to the believer. He was really, all his life, trying to find reason for a creed of optimism on a basis of doubt.
Renan approached the problem, of our life in much the same way as a greater and stronger mind of his own time approached them. The answer which Matthew Arnold and Renan give is the same. “ We cannot believe, for we do not know. Science reveals to us no God. We must take our lives without him." The despair of these men at discovering truth about the spiritual world is the reaction against the same error of narrow dogmatism on the part of those who have hitherto undertaken to speak of these high matters. But here they part. Matthew Arnold, the stronger soul, said: “If this is so, let us not deceive ourselves with dreams that are only shadows of what we have cast from us. Let us take a new courage, —all the harder and the higher because our old ground of hope is lost,-a new courage in what we find in ourselves, and in the world, which makes for righteousness.
But to the lighter nature of Ernest Renan, this was far too cheerless a prospect. He tried to conceal, even from himself, the full meaning of the loss of faith. With the echoes of those cathedral bells of Brittany still ringing in his heart, he wrote with wonderful beauty of the emotions and aspirations of the ideal life. Men were charmed into listening-and, forgot what this all really meant. But when Renan turned, and told them that the religion in which they believed was a false and outworn creed,—they awoke to the fact that these fancies were all a dream, and nothing was really left to make life a less hard and pathetic affair. But Renan called this beautiful dream religion. For he forgot that dreaming is not the same thing as the serious business of life.
ON PARSONAGE HILL,
N Saturday nights the bench in front of Andrew
Witherbee's store is crowded. Here the old men of Eastbury dream away their time when the nets have been spread and the dories hauled up, listening to the roar of the surf below and living their youth over again in tales of the sea. It was on this bench too that Abner Tracy courted and won his first bride—Cynthy Tripp she was, before she was married. The affair happened some years ago, to be sure, but then a joke like that is always good, and Eastbury laughs heartily at it even now.
Andrew stood in the doorway of his store and drew a long breath, shuffling his seet so as to catch attention, for he had a piece of news, and was eager to tell it, having treasured it some hours. “ Cranb'ries is gettin' on these days," he ventured by way of introduction. out Eastb'ry Port way this aft'noon and they looked nice, I tell you." There was not a sound from the silent group on the bench to show that the men even heard the storekeeper's tones. Andrew seemed undecided, even disappointed. He cleared his throat and yawned prodigiously in order to cover his embarrassment, wishing heartily that he had said nothing. From far below the noise of the surf on Eastbury Ledges came up in a dull roar, echoing heavily on the dead air. The aspens hardly moved.
The silence became oppressive and Andrew was fast becoming desperate over the failure of his remarks to excite interest. It was impossible to repress the news longer. “I see Susy and Joe Gerritt agin this aft'noon,” he blurted out, “jest before train time. They was runnin' off, most probʼly," he added, and then laughed heavily at the conceit. This time there was a stir among the listeners, and Andrew felt repaid for his trouble in remembering all about the affair.
Susy's gettin' to be quite a big girl now' days,” piped a thin old voice from the end of the bench near the street ; “She 'n' Joe seems right thick. Guess th' old man don't know nothin' how she takes on. He ain't overfond o' Joe."