13-1 literary analysis2

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A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

13.1 (Winter 2013)




courtesy of artrenewal.org


Poetry and Will: A Formula for Progressive Religion

 John R. Harris


After years of struggling to find time for it, I have finally read historian Ernest Renan’s nineteenth-century masterpiece, Vie de Jésus.   A scholar of the first order, the French antiquarian was also a devout progressive.  I was not entirely prepared for the latter discovery, in my naiveté.  When one has been accustomed since one’s youth to see certain titles always enrolled among chefs d’oeuvres, one imaginatively dresses them in stodgy togas and laurel garlands.  We of the Western intelligentsia are reared, as well, to carry a cluster of arrogant presumptions with us everywhere, the foremost of these, perhaps, being that we are “cutting edge”–that we continually overhaul the past in such a way as to render its own documents irrelevantly quaint.  Progressivism itself turns out, as an system (and even as the particulars of an system), to be very old; and to me, it never loses enough teeth to look quaint.  

The case at hand is a case in point.  Renan represents Jesus and his ring of disciples as nothing less than an experiment in proto-communism.  His somewhat effusive prose paints the area around the Sea of Galilee as–in American terms–a kind of Napa Valley (before Islam devastated it, he adds) where the pure of heart might graze their fill from an abundance of fish, wild fruits, and honey.  Again the American mind can supply parallel images from fairly contemporary events: a band of benign hippie-cultists freely wandering a temperate Southwestern Arcadia to spread their gospel of love, love, love.  According to the French historian, the Hebrew locals, unfettered by big-city politics and zealotry, did not hesitate to indulge these callow exponents of living in the moment without material worry.  At the peak of his rhapsody, in the final words of his eleventh chapter, Renan anoints himself with Mary’s oil and breaks into kerygmatic apostrophe:  

Happy he who was able to see with his own eyes this divine blossoming and to share, if only for a day, in this illusion without equal [i.e., that a paradise exists beyond this world]!  Yet more happy still, Jesus would tell us, he who, free of all illusion, might reproduce within himself this celestial apparition and, without any millennial dream, any chimerical paradise, any signs from heaven—simply by the rectitude of his will and the poetry of his spirit—might know how to recreate in his heart the kingdom of God! [i]  

As I have already suggested, there is much in this outburst—and in Renan’s entire project—which reaches far beyond 1863 (when the ninth edition posted on Gutenberg.org was published) to alert us to the nature of progressivism in general.  We might start with the high-handed dismissal of everything metaphysical from reality.  Renan’s introductory chapter has explained that the historian must reject miracles at the outset.  By definition, they cannot be analyzed scientifically: therefore they are not admissible evidence.  (Viz., “None of the miracles with which the ancient narratives are replete occurred in scientific conditions.  The observation has never been contradicted in a single instance that miracles occur only in times and places susceptible to their belief and before persons disposed to their belief.”)  This is rather like excluding character witnesses from a criminal trial because their views are sure to be biased while, at the same time, assuming that lab reports require not one scintilla of interpretation.  It rules in favor, that is, of a single category of evidence without establishing that category’s right to preeminence.  And Renan’s “objective” evidence is very far indeed from having no parti pris.  

On the matter of miracles, I am fond of pointing out to disputants in any context that Immanuel Kant’s “antimonies of pure reason” had tidily proved (in plenty of time to draw Renan’s attention, by the way–just before the American Revolution ended) that scientific knowledge cannot logically claim to possess ultimate truth: its necessary premises–that there must be a First Cause yet cannot be, that there must be elementary matter yet cannot be, etc.–systematically contradict each other.  Yet religious traditionalists will indict Kant as a co-conspirator in the degradation of truth to relativism for precisely these insights.  Meanwhile, Renan and his positivist allies simply turned their backs on the absurd proposition that you don’t really know what you see and touch.  In other words, they too rejected relativism, in an historically unnoticed irony.  Hence they, as well as the soi-disant traditionalists, opened the gate to our relativist misery by yoking moral truth to empirical fact.  The carbon-dating of a wooden fragment must determine whether the Commandments are true or false, the lab reports on the Shroud of Turin will decide whether or not God became flesh, etc., etc.

It is of course true that morality hardly offers any plausible lodestone or Polaris to compete with an ongoing scientific endeavor that has put men on the Moon.  Through the ages, moral codes can’t seem to agree about anything.  Atrocities like human sacrifice have been elevated to sacred rites in certain cultures, sometimes for millennia.  To discredit moral truth in this manner, however, is to view it scientifically: i.e., to apply inept criteria in the very manner that Renan condemns above.  The presence (one might well say the ubiquity) of wrong moral judgments does not disprove the reality of moral truth: it proves, rather, the reality of flawed moral reasoning, and perhaps even of a deep perversity in the human heart.  A scientist will say that if a liquid doesn’t float on water in a single try, it is more dense than water: no need to repeat the experiment tenfold and average the results.  Moral claims, though, produce “false positives” all the time.  Might I be forgiven for saying, in fact, that the careless marriage of moral duty to historical event–as in the transmission of holy books, revelations, miracles, and the like—may vitiate the test for goodness at least as much as any other factor?  On that, Renan and I might have agreed.

We can know by genuine conviction what is right only as individuals–but we individuals know only with difficulty whether we truly have right knowledge (i.e., through the imperative, self-surmounting voice that might be styled “inner revelation”), or if, instead, we have subconsciously arranged a moral landscape that flatters our selfish desires.  By comparing our “lights” with those of others, we may acquire greater confidence; but this test, too, is fraught with risk.  Selfish interests can operate collectively as well as individually.  Furthermore, we often have a self-defeating tendency (for those who would truly be good) to seek out others whose interests mirror ours.  A slaveholder can find a great many other slaveholders to confirm him in the rectitude of his practice if he looks in the right (or wrong) places.

I believe that stories are one of the most successful means ever devised by human beings to test for moral truth.  The art of narrative is unique among all the arts in that its primary “driver” is morality.  We imaginatively create situations in which particular people act and react in distinctive ways.  The narrative may pit several alternative moral systems against each other, as in a competition.  Just as often, it may scrutinize a single set of values, represented usually by a single character; for when one value system is projected into several or all characters, the tale becomes insipid.  We all know that moral complexity reigns among real human beings.  Hence the critical importance of realism in story-telling: not that we demand the hard-hitting exposé of the whistle-blower or investigative journalist concerning political or workplace fraud or abuse, but that we require the represented people to “act real”.  Motive, in this regard, is much more important than event–and event is mostly important, indeed, insofar as it reveals something about a motive’s quality in confrontation with the surrounding universe.  Does the protagonist’s idealism leave the world a better place, is he a lovable but bungling clown like the Knight of La Mancha, or do people of his persuasion cause much of humanity’s misery?  

The story is the crucible wherein we evaluate such matters.  Its minted product rings hollow when the materials are improperly mixed.  One can float an airy maxim about human conduct and sound ever so compelling, but the maxim’s flaws will quickly surface in a story where its terms are forced into flesh, blood, and living time.

I call this approach to literature the study of narrative predilectics (from the Latin word that emphasizes the preeminence of choice in human affairs).[ii]  After writing a short piece about Renan for a very limited audience, I decided that I might recast the essay very effectively in this context: for Renan, I argue, is trying to create a “Jesus story” from a few incidents in the Gospels and–to a far greater extent–from his own moral assumptions.  I suggest that the success or failure of his Jesus to project moral coherence is nothing short of a test of the author’s progressivism.  This Renan-Jesus may indeed be a certain type of person that we all know well–he may be quite real in that regard.  I have already proposed by way of parallel, without intended flippancy, the kind of well-meaning waif that some of us recall from the “hippie” culture of the late Sixties.  The true test in this case, though, would seem to me to be whether Renan’s Jesus has credibility as a moral exemplar, a savior.  Renan plainly thinks so: his objective in writing his masterwork was exactly to sell us on this equation.


I began at the beginning, but perhaps a best way to re-begin this discussion is at the end.  Allow me to tip Renan’s hand for him by citing a passage near the end of Vie de Jésus:

At once theocratic and democratic, the idea cast into the world by Jesus was, along with the invasion of the Germans, the most active cause behind the dissolution of the Caesars’ labors.  On the one hand, the right of all men to participate in the kingdom of God was proclaimed.  On the other, religion was henceforth separated in principle from the state.  The rights of conscience, removed from political law, came to constitute a new force, a “spiritual force”.  This force had belied its origin more than once; over the centuries, bishops have become princes and the Pope has been a king.  The supposed empire of souls has been shown on numerous occasions to be a frightful tyranny, making use of torture and incineration to maintain itself.  Yet the day will come when the separation will bear fruit–when the domain of spiritual things will cease to be called a “force” and will be called instead a “liberty”.  Arisen from the conscience of a man of the people, coming to blossom among the people, loved and admired first by the people, Christianity bore the stamp of something entirely new which is destined never to be erased.  It was the first triumph of the revolution, the victory of popular sentiment, the uprising of the simple of heart, the inauguration of the beautiful as the people understand it.  Jesus thus opened the breach in the aristocratic societies of antiquity through which everything will pass.  (end of chapter 27)

The concepts of dialectical materialism, if not the actual terms, are all aglow in this building crescendo.  Renan will underscore as his work concludes that the life of Jesus was really all about politics–all about the struggle of ordinary people, that is, against powerful oppressors wearing both crowns and miters.  The revolution led by this greatest martyr of the people is quite plainly not to be viewed as one that transforms individual souls in unique and intimate ways; it is, rather, an epochal social upheaval.  It parallels, and is indeed a projection of, the rise of the masses from that servitude into which primitive human order originally forced them.  It is the march of human progress.

We have already seen (to return now to beginnings) that Renan presumes to ascribe atheism to Jesus.  This, if not his first fully extra-textual importation to the savior-portrait, is surely the grossest.  If I might reiterate in condensation the passage cited in my Section I: “Jesus would tell us… [that the true believer], free of all illusion… [should] reproduce within himself this celestial apparition and, without any millennial dream, any chimerical paradise, any signs from heaven—simply by the rectitude of his will and the poetry of his spirit—[should] know how to recreate in his heart the kingdom of God!”  There can be no further question of genuine historiography here, or not in any sense that would be accepted today.  Renan, rather, has commandeered sacred history to erect therein a Nietzschean Superman, tragically all alone with the nullity at the heart of all would-be truth yet ecstatically energized by the possibility of unlimited freedom in that void.  Indeed, Renan takes pains in places to impress upon the reader this image of Jesus-the-madman:

The grand vision of the kingdom of God, flashing before his eyes without cease, induced in him a vertigo.  His disciples sometimes thought him insane.  His enemies declared him possessed.  His excessively passionate temperament carried him every instant beyond the bounds of human nature.  His labor was not one of reason, but rather disdained all classifications of the human mind: what he demanded most insistently was “faith”.  This was the word he repeated most often among his inner circle.  It is common to all popular movements.  No such movement would have progressed if its leader had been forced to win over disciples, one after another, with solid proofs logically deduced.  Reflection leads only to doubt.  If the authors of the French Revolution, for instance, had needed convincing beforehand by justifications of sufficiently developed length, all of them would have reached old age without doing anything.  Jesus, in the same way, strove less for settled conviction than for ecstatic capture (entrainement).  His disciples sometimes didn’t understand him, and felt before him a kind of fear.  Sometimes his ill humor at all sorts of resistance carried him to commit inexplicable, apparently absurd acts.  (end of chapter 19)

Such passages most often appear with little or no scriptural citation.  Inasmuch as crazed outbursts are hardly part of the conventional portrait of Jesus, one would have expected more points of reference.  Instead, Renan seems to veer into the contemporary world (the Zeitgeist of mid-century Western Europe, I should say) for justification.  We are simply supposed to know that there is no real God, that man must therefore create God from himself, and that the result will strike bystanders, perhaps, as unruly ecstasy.  Yet in the nineteenth century, Renan piously affirms, men such as he are indeed beginning to grasp this deepest level of meaning within the Savior’s message: “The word of Jesus was a bolt of lightning on a gloomy night: eighteen-hundred years have been needed for the eyes of humanity (I ought to say, for an infinitely small portion of humanity) to habituate themselves to it” (end of chapter 14).  

Such a Dionysiac enlightenment transforms human will power into an ascending staircase.  Raw, arbitrary desire could not describe the upward vector characteristic of “progress”.  The noble savage, for instance, so beloved of Rousseau, Chateaubriand, and Renan’s other romantic predecessors belongs to unspoiled Nature and explicitly believes in an objective pantheistic force.  The New Man–the Superman, the Saved Man–knows that these woodsprites and manitus are “illusions” and “chimeras”.  Hence enthusiasm (lit. “being in the god”) requires that he summon up a god from his own genius.

To be sure, one detects no libido dominandi in Renan’s Jesus, nor any overtly expressed in Renan himself.  The god created ex nihilo will be a decent chap, ever mindful of his social obligations.

In our time itself, a troubled time when Jesus has no successors more authentic than those who seem to repudiate him, dreams of an ideal social organization–in many ways analogous to the aspirations of primitive Christian sects–are in a sense no more than the development of the same idea, a branch of that immense tree upon which every thought of the future ripens and whose roots and stem will forever be the “kingdom of God”.  All of humanity’s social revolutions will be grafted onto this phrase.  Yet tainted with a coarse materialism, aspiring to the impossible (namely, to found a universal happiness upon political and economic measures), the so-called “socialist” efforts of our time will remain infertile until they accept as their standard the true spirit of Jesus–by which I mean an absolute idealism, the principle that the earth must be renounced that it may be possessed.  (end of chapter 17)

Through the pages of Nietzsche circulates an unsettling honesty–an primal awareness, at least, that unleashing one’s inner beast upon the world licenses both righteous indignation and petulant fury, both a passionate attraction to justice and a passionate exhilaration in command.  The Superman, in his pristine form, does not justify himself by entering into evidence the good he does his fellow beings–nothing could inspire greater contempt in him.  Renan’s New Man requires just such a pedigree of respectability.  He is not the supernova in all its majesty and terror, but the supernova explosion seen from safe light-years away and groomed to be the central image of a canvas, the central metaphor of an idyll. 

Poetry, in a word (or in one word out of several possible), must illumine Renan’s “objective” analysis: whimsy, fantasy, romance.  Having sanitized the Christ of his chrism, Renan finds just another man like himself, to whom he may therefore assign motives that resemble what would have brought him to do the same things: an Ersatz psychology anticipating the modern science (not unlike Montaigne’s lingering over himself to understand humanity).  “What would I, as Jesus, do?” Renan seems to ponder.  A revealing–and deeply disturbing–example of this “method” in practice is Renan’s interpretation of the scene in John’s gospel (12:3-8) where Judas chides Mary over wasting money on perfume for the Teacher.  This “annoyed Jesus.  He enjoyed honors; for honors served his end and substantiated his title as the son of David”  (beginning of chapter 23).  Renan imagines that he, too would have appreciated a rich anointing; therefore, the bone of contention is an honor due (rather than, say, the purity of Mary’s motive).

Yet more disturbing is Renan’s curious apologia for Judas later in the same chapter.  So fluid is the historian’s own understanding of moral truth, apparently (about which, more very soon), that the notion of betrayal bemuses him.  Judas seems to him, then, to get a bad rap:

It is preferable to imagine some sentiment of jealousy, some intestine dissension [between Judas and the other disciples]….  We therefore believe that the maledictions hurled upon him have something of the unjust….  The secret societies of the Party of the [French] Republic concealed within their bosom much conviction and sincerity, and yet denunciations commonly arose from their midst.  (chapter 23)

The final comment probably explains this entire excursus.  In a manner typical of his method, Renan views the events surrounding Jesus’ life through the prism of politics in his own time.  If the Teacher and his disciples are a cadre of callow revolutionaries (as they must be), then how can anyone so illuminated by the pure flame of transformation stoop to commit such a base act?  Obviously, because idealists sometimes quarrel: some see the shining golden parapets of Utopia more clearly than others through the shifting mists of tactical calculation.  Judas must have wanted the people to seize weapons or burn buildings or mob the praetorium in their thousands.  It was all an unfortunate disagreement about strategy.

Following such methodology in his search for Jesus, Renan naturally emerges with a delightful young dreamer who scorns riches and allows the naïve to attribute divinity to him in their childish way.  Within this secularizing of the Savior hides the deification of the Social Gospel: that is, the more Jesus loses his divinity, the more his “mission” itself becomes a god.  Vilification of the well-to-do, elevation of the poor to victimhood, redistribution of wealth, dissolution of the individual into a great ascending collective… this is the fabric of the new spirituality.  Renan reads Christ’s mind, having “methodically” rendered it fully human; there he finds the “will and poetry” of someone who shares his own political views.  In the crusading, brook-no-opposition commitment (will) to a vision of society as it has never existed (poetry), he discovers that misty horizon which neither he nor any other progressive will label the ever-postponed fulfillment of a cultic religion–but which, nevertheless, is patently just that.

For how else may we style the manic tone of the passage below?  Reviving the theme of Jesus’ “lunacy”, it also suddenly abandons the well-mannered bonhommie of the busy little social worker in favor of something very like fanatical zeal (which it explicitly invokes).  One might well say that the gloves have come off, and even that Nietzsche is again beginning to peek through the seams:

And yet several of the recommendations that he [Jesus] addresses to his disciples contain germs of a true fanaticism, germs that the Middle Ages would develop in a cruel fashion.  Must we reproach him for that?  No revolution ever achieves its ends without a little rudeness.  If Luther or the agents of the French Revolution had been forced to observe the rules of politeness, reform and revolution would never have taken place….  All the greatest strides of humanity have been made in the name of absolute principles.  A discerning philosopher would have said to his disciples: Respect the opinion of others, and trust that no one is so completely right that his adversary is completely wrong.  But the procedure of Jesus had nothing in common with the philosopher’s disinterested speculation.  (chapter 19)

One may be reminded of Lenin’s comment about having to break some eggs to make an omelet, or Mao’s about political power growing out of a gun’s barrel.  The associations seem quite valid, and they are not reassuring.

For it really should be declared here, as a practical consideration of immense moral consequence, that Jesus never counsels or condones the forcible separation of people from their property.  This, indeed, would contradict his message.  Renan and his progressive heirs are quite right that a Christian must resist excessive ties to the material world—a duty too many Christians misplace; but to measure the quality of this resistance by the amount of pelf transferred to the poor is actually to valorize wealth in a new way.  Being “so much trash as may be grasped thus” (in the sublime phrase of Shakespeare’s Brutus), material possessions must not perversely become that which we are obligated to lavish upon the less encumbered.  There is virtue in being poor—“poor of spirit,” if you prefer; but the spirit finds such blessed poverty in its liberation from craving after dross and baubles.  The ancient world was in fact fully conversant with the virtue of radical self-sufficiency.  Diogenes Laertius reports Socrates as fondly exclaiming on a typical walk through the agora, “How many things there are of which I have no need!”  Non esse cupidum pecunia est, wrote Cicero (in the sixth of his Stoic Paradoxes): “Freedom from craving is possession of wealth.”  To be sure, the ancients had also heard the favorite cry of urban mobs, “Wipe the slates clean—no more debt, starting today!”  The Romans called such proposals res novae, or “new affairs” (“business after a re-boot,” we might say).  The term carried none of the romance of our “revolution”: historians like Livy recognized in it the refuge of wastrels, adventurers, and professional trouble-makers.  Yet one is hard put to say that Renan’s Jesus doesn’t resemble this dubious company more than the Stoic teacher and freed slave, Epictetus.

The problem, for Renan, is that Epictetus believes in changing nothing but one’s personal attitude; he is convinced that the rest is beyond the reach of one’s will (one’s un-poeticized moral will), and hence represents pure distraction.  Renan and his co-religionists cannot rest content with a mere chastening of their own actions and motives.  (In fact, the ecstatic visionary of social change is all too often deaf to the mortifying judgments of conscientious self-analysis.)  They must transform the world—which grand enterprise tends to upstage any serious self-examination.  Jesus himself, Renan declares in the opening words of chapter 15, “returned to Galilee [from Jerusalem] having completely lost his Jewish faith, and in full revolutionary ardor”; and he elaborates, four sentences later in a miraculous feat of historical telepathy, “He knows well that… the kingdom of God cannot be conquered without violence.”  

Note the critical point that the evolving Jesus completely rejects Hebrew law as he nears his apotheosis.  Here Jesus seems to anticipate Renan’s own anti-Semitism, one is tempted to say (or to replicate it, one is even more tempted to say).  Loathing of the Jews (and, sometimes, of Muslims) is a recurrent theme in Vie de Jésus.  Chapter 19 begins with a volley against this accursed tribe for clinging to tradition and resisting the liberated flight of the spirit.  “The Pharisees were the true Jews,” Renan assures us, just so we fail not to see the big picture as it comes clear.  Against the progressive values of the French Revolution stand the oppressive values of bankers and capitalist speculators.  Jesus would at last be murdered by the Old Guard, as personified in the Jew.

Toward the end of his little tome, having represented (after his unique fashion) the events surrounding the Crucifixion, Renan hammers this point, eager that we should see clearly just what kind of person is responsible for all that goes wrong in the world:

Thus it was neither Tiberius nor Pilate who condemned Jesus.  It was the old Jewish party: it was Mosaic law…  [Four sentences follow which back away from the notion of collective responsibility… and then the following passage sharply reverses direction.]  Yet nations, like individuals, bear responsibility.  If ever crime committed, then, was that of an entire nation, it was the death of Jesus.  This death was “legal” in the sense that its primary cause was a law that contained a nation’s very soul….  Christianity has been intolerant, but intolerance is not an essentially Christian behavior.  It is Jewish behavior, in the sense that Judaism raised for the first time in religion the theory of the absolute and founded the principle that every innovator, even when he supplies miracles in support of his doctrine, should be received with cast stones–lapidated by everyone, without a trial.  (end of chapter 24)

Renan’s equation of Judaism with belief in absolute truth is key.  All moral systems must rest either on the assumption that transcending, eternal truths exist (whether because they have been revealed as true or because the human heart innately recognizes their truth) or upon the assumption of a truth-in-becoming, a vector sanctified by its destination–an “end-justifies-the-means” system, in short.  Judaism, for Renan, is the epitome of the former, and hence fleshes out the Great Adversary.  If moral boundary lines cannot be moved to accommodate historical advance, then we will never get anywhere.

This game of drawing connective lines between ancient history and contemporary politics, however, can quickly entangle its players in a web.  Renan must double back later on the terms of his indictment against the Pharisees, explaining that the Sadducees were the “true Jews” because they were not simply retrograde to Jesus’ message of progress, but ultra-traditional: 

Like Jesus, the Sadducees rejected the “traditions” of the Pharisees.  In a very strange oddity, it was these unbelievers– denying the resurrection, the oral law, the existence of angels–who were the true Jews; or, to put it better, the old law in its simplicity that no longer satisfied the religious needs of the time.  It was they who clung strictly to that law and, rejecting all modern inventions, cast the devoted in the light of the impious, rather like an evangelical Protestant today appears an infidel in orthodox nations.  In any case, it was not from such a quarter that a lively reaction against Jesus would come.  The official priest, his eyes turned toward political power and intimately allied with it, did not understand these enthusiastic trends.  The Pharisaic bourgeoisie, rather–the innumerable soferim or scribes who lived off of the “science of tradition”–who took alarm and who were in reality menaced in their prejudices and their interests by the new master’s doctrine….”   (end of chapter 21)

Why this maneuver?  Apparently because the “true Jew” is not necessarily the “worst Jew”.  That infamy should belong exclusively to those who pretend to have absolute values yet put a price on everything, thus introducing a sleazy relativism into the scale; and the need for this qualification, of course, is that Renan’s contemporary targets must be placed squarely before the crosshairs.  The modern terminus of the parallel between Jesus’ biblical enemies and the greedy bourgeoisie must be firmly fixed: the busy, after-thought reshuffling of references in this passage occurs only at the Gospel end.  Louis Napoleon’s France is the destination, to use another metaphor.  All roads of “historical analysis” must end up there.  Hence worship of tradition as a kind of suicidal naiveté, rejecting every new idea out of hand and clinging to the outdated though it condemn one to sterility and starvation… this Renan, through the eyes of his nineteenth-century Jesus, can let pass, and can even pity.  The true adversaries of Jesus/progress (and the not-so-true Jews, apparently… the New Jews, perhaps) are those who traffic in progressive innovation for the sake of sordid profit rather than for the advancement of the human species.  

Just to clarify yet further, Renan concludes this chapter with an exegesis of the “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” exchange.  This was the “utterance that decided the future of Christianity… and laid the basis of true liberalism and true civilization.”  More “true” ideological bloodlines–as opposed to those which might muddle the high authority of certain political views (in historical trivia, no doubt): Renan would have us remark the invincible antipathy of the true Jesus to all monetary concerns.  As crazy as that may sound to bourgeois ears, it is the true gospel.

The sustained delirium of such moral inspiration having been definitively severed from the past, whose authority is corrupt beyond redemption (cf. the Sanhedrin), the internal voice of conscience also seems to be silenced in Renan’s formulations.  For its utterances are Pharisaical, or at least potentially so: the inner sense of duty must forever fall under suspicion of a mainstream brainwashing at the hands of those pseudo-progressive hucksters, peddling old wine in new skins for their selfish advantage.  With neither a commandment on a tablet nor a categorical imperative, then, where does this Son of Man lay his head to find ideological rest and support?

The visionary’s devotion can only be channeled into further intoxication: hence the tendency we see in Jesus (a troubling tendency to Renan, since it flirts with charlatanry), to claim divine descent, or to allow the claim’s publication.  How does Renan’s Jesus, this punctilious foe of hypocrisy who knows that material reality is the only reality, deal with being called the Messiah by the common people and credited by them with performing miracles?  How, specifically, do we absolve him of the charge of being a mountebank (to use a glorious Victorian word)?  What about, say, his taking the credit for bringing Lazarus back from the dead?  In the midst of a series of equivocations, Renan makes the following defense:

One must remember also that in the impure and oppressive city of Jerusalem, Jesus was no longer himself.  His conscience, through the fault of others and not through his own, had lost something of its original limpidity.  Desperate, pushed to the limit, he was no longer master of himself….   The joy of his [Jesus’] arrival could have brought Lazarus back to life.  Perhaps also the desire to shut the mouths of those who outrageously denied the divine mission of their friend drew these passionate people [Lazarus and his sisters] beyond all boundaries.  Perhaps Lazarus, yet pale from his illness, had himself wound up in bandages like a corpse and interred in his family tomb…  (beginning of chapter 22)

In other words, Jesus (as Renan imagines him–that is, as Ernest Renan) must be pardoned for having a native human fallibility–for he is, of course, merely human.  His enemies were multiplying and magnifying their outcry against his idealistic ambition, his friends were inclined to mystify his grand vision in their naive ignorance, and… and he more or less let things slide on certain occasions when their slippage strengthened his position.  Who could find fault with that?

Actually, Renan had shaped this argument earlier, complete with its several (suspiciously many) exculpatory levels.  In the first place (explains chapter 17), the science of medicine was so primitive at the time that anyone whose presence lifted the heart earned points as a healer; many of the miracles were also late accretions to the evolving legend, Jesus himself having long died; and finally, the Teacher’s own words make abundantly clear that he did not want his little cures noised abroad as marvels (a species of evidence which would force one to ask Renan why he considers some Gospel reports fully reliable and others fully not so).  

The best (as in most honest–as in most horrifying) summation of Renan’s defense, however, comes in the chapter preceding that one dedicated to miracles:

Good faith and imposture are two words that, in our rigid [modern, bourgeois, Western] conscience are set in opposition as two irreconcilable terms….  History is impossible [to comprehend] if one does not admit from the start that sincerity has different measures.  All great things are done by the people; the people, however, cannot be led unless one lends oneself to their way of thinking.  The philosopher who, knowing as much, remains apart and holds aloof in his nobility deserves high praise.  But he who would take humanity with all of its illusions and attempt to act upon and with it can scarcely be blamed….  There is no great foundation that doesn’t rest upon a legend.  The only guilty party, in that case, is humanity itself for wishing to be deceived.  (final words of chapter 15)

The contemptuous dismissal of an abstract, unconditioned aversion to lying as bourgeois squeamishness has grown all too familiar to us postmoderns.  When truth is all in becoming, the “true truth” consists of serving progress.  Conversely, a meticulous insistence on truth-telling when lies better lubricate the transformation of society is stupid, at best–and may even be styled as “lying” by a progressive, since it delays humanity’s advance.  One who ministers to the “true cause” is thus often morally obligated to lie.

And why stop at lying?  Hang for a lamb, hand for a sheep.  Liberated from stodgy bourgeois moral imperatives, the progressive may drift fully out to sea.  From lying to slander, from slander to bribery, thence to forgery, thence to high treason, and thence to mass murder (the mark of the “true believer” in times soon to follow Renan): such is the course followed by more than one “inspired leader” who would make over humanity entirely, in defiance both of its essential nature and of its most honored traditions.

To my mind, the central contradiction of all progressive thought, and of Renan’s distasteful classic specifically, is an abject failure to separate egotism from inspiration–to come anywhere close to such separation, or even to come so far as to recognize the possibility of a conflict.  A well-disposed reader may likely protest that Renan by no means licenses Stalinist or Maoist purges implicitly just because he allows “motivators” to bend the truth.  How could anyone imagine that he would have intended the portrait of his beloved Jesus to be viewed in such a way?  The outrage here, though, is precisely that the person of Jesus–the only example of human perfection in Western tradition (not excluding the Stoic sage, whom Seneca and others insisted was an abstract ideal)–should be suborned to serve Renan’s tawdry political ends.  First this figure connives at mistaken impressions… then he tells patent lies in order to seduce his audience.  Is it really so hard to picture the migration from saying whatever one will to doing whatever one will–particularly when a mere word incites others to do the deeds?  If any lie may be woven to assist the creation of a world that has never existed, then why may not any deed be done in the same cause?  Is it “conscience” that will draw the line?  But any functional conscience would have interceded as soon as the imagined world’s fantasy became apparent and warned, “The terms of this world have not been selected by any generation of men.  They may well be incompatible with human nature.  Proceed cautiously.  Persuade others with what thou knowest of truth… but inform thyself more thoroughly, lest thou speak’st folly.”

I will end this section, as I began it, with one of Renan’s concluding panoramic overviews–a passage resonant with the upward march of history, the rise of the underclass, and the deity-by-default of grand designs:

Every branch of humanity’s development has its privileged period, when it attains perfection through a sort of spontaneous instinct and without effort.  No labor of reflection can succeed in producing masterpieces of the order created during such moments by such inspired geniuses.  What the golden age of Greece were for arts and letters, the age of Jesus was for religion…. This sublime figure, who continues to preside over the world’s destiny, may well be called divine–not in the sense that Jesus absorbed godliness or was adequate to it (to use the scholastic expression), but in the sense that Jesus is the individual who made his species take a great step toward the divine.  In its entirety, humanity offers an assembly of vile, egotistical beings, superior to animals only in that their egotism is more deliberate.  Yet in the midst of such uniform vulgarity, columns occasionally spring up toward the sky and attest to a more noble destiny.  Jesus is the highest of these columns showing man the place whence he comes and whither he ought to strive.  In Jesus is condensed all that is good and elevated in our nature.  He was not impeccable; he vanquished the same passions as we combat.  No angel of God comforted him, unless it was his sound conscience; no Satan tempted him, if not the one he carried in his heart.  Just as many of his remarkable aspects have been lost to us through the fault of his disciples, so as well many of his faults were probably dissimulated.  But never as much as he has any man made the interest of humanity dominate in his life over the trivialities of self-love….  (final paragraphs of chapter 28) 

Notice the overt rejection of Jesus’ freedom from sin.  He was a man, a very good man–the best of men, in that he devoted his life to the betterment of men.  What are we to make, then, of the “conscience” which was his good angel?  Whence came this conscience?  If men are only men–vile but deliberate animals, that is, whose habits result from biology and culture but never from an immutable magnetism to any “Jewish” absolute–then what could Jesus’ conscience be other than a collection of neurological inclinations and cultural inculcations?  If he rejected his culture, why did he do so?  It could not have been because he heard a calling to a higher truth, because the immaterial dimension needed to detect such a calling exists in no man, according to Renan.  And if Jesus therefore decided to infuse into his followers a contempt for proprietary concerns and for labor aimed at acquiring wealth, what could have been the origin of this kerygma other than the egotism–the exhibitionism, the counter-conformity, or the narcissism–of a character whom Renan does not hesitate to call maladjusted, and even deranged?

The tenor of Vie de Jésus‘s final sentences is amazingly Machiavellian.  The loathing of human nature belongs to the pages of The Prince, and the thrilling vision of the last chapter shares the moral incoherence of the “Roman Dream”.  If men are merely vile, self-seeking cowards, then why would they rejoice at and rally behind a leader who promises them freedom?  To what uses would they put more freedom, other than to plunder more ingénues and fawn upon more potentates?  At least Machiavelli’s ideal prince knows that his piety is feigned, his generosity calculated, and his justice rigged.  What is Renan’s Jesus but a Cesare Borgia wholly lacking in self-knowledge?  And in this extreme spiritual poverty verging upon dementia, how are we realistically to interpret him but as a Tiberius without an army?


Renan’s Jesus, then, is morally incoherent.  He does not believe in an eternity of the spirit yet believes that no reward of this world deserves to be served zealously.  He is moved by an extraordinary conscience to sacrifice himself for others yet does not believe in any immaterial or supra-material reality wherein selfless moral imperatives might originate.  He is a beacon of moral virtue yet enjoys petty honors, tolerates illusions that bring him adulation, nourishes lies that advance his agenda, and even countenances the eventual need of violence to make his cause victorious—none of which behaviors one would expect to find in any person of commendable but not celestial character.  He clearly supposes that the overlooked and underprivileged drudges and helots of this mortal rat race must receive en masse more wealth and opportunity if they are to achieve any kind of fulfillment—that such pursuits as meditation and introspection are but dead ends.  And yet, he is the inveterate enemy of those who worship wealth….

Renan’s history is a ruin of moral contradiction, notwithstanding his great erudition and general antiquarian competency.  His book fails less as history than as story.  People like his Jesus do indeed exist—rather too abundantly, insofar as they labor under several dangerous illusions.  Yet Renan’s undertaking has not been to trace the tragic downfall of a naïve idealist, but rather to paint the portrait of the very best life ever led by a human being.  Vie de Jésus was to have been the story of stories, the Myth of Progress (if the word “myth” is understood to mean “narrative archetype”).  The work dismally miscarries in this effort.  The hypothetical program for irreproachable living has failed its narrative test of plausibility and consistency as surely as if a landscape painter had forgotten to add shadows beneath trees.  Real human beings cannot conduct themselves like Renan’s Jesus and be accepted as model human beings.

That the work is intended as a history has no bearing on this verdict’s justice.  Renan chose Progressive Man as his model and then sought to squeeze Jesus into the mold—he did not research the life of Jesus meticulously and end up, in utter surprise, with Progressive Man.  I realize that postmodern historiography scarcely recognizes the distinction that I have just drawn; yet even if we hold somewhat cynically that all history is mere yarn-spinning—a propagandistic overhaul of the past to beguile the future—we are left a fortiori with a Renan who must be judged on the narrative merits of his “tale”.  This tale, as narrative, is a flop.

I also realize—only too painfully—that postmodern taste has ushered in a very broad tolerance of “reader-response” handlings of texts, and I would stress that narrative predilectics are not of this house.  I came of intellectual age during the “relevance” craze of the late Sixties which continues to this day, so I know the markings of the beast quite well.  I have struggled (often in vain) to have students understand that Achilles is not a “wimp” just because he weeps over his loss of face—quite the opposite—and that Euripides’ Medea slays her sons neither in Post-Partum Depression nor because she is an ardent feminist determined to make a statement.  This last misconstruction is the harder to neutralize in that much published “scholarship” undergirds it, insisting (for instance) that Medea’s long opening speech to the women of Corinth is a manifesto for gender rights (as opposed to the first of many examples of her ability to manipulate her auditors cunningly).  The Establishment itself, in other words, has grown so accustomed to describing the viewer’s own ghostly face as mirrored in the sculpture’s glass casement that this miserable exercise in mistaken identity is now respectable.  I was already being taught as a high school student that the captain/narrator in Conrad’s “Secret Sharer” had a homosexual relationship with Leggatt because of the latter’s name.  Noses, too, are apparently mere phallic symbols.  A presentation in graduate school apprised me that Pushkin’s Collegiate Assessor Kovalyov was really seeking his Johnson all about the town.

Narrative predilectics is not in the least my personal contribution to this critical debacle.  On the contrary, it begins in the reader’s being sensitive to a gap between his or her moral assumptions and those of the story-teller.  The objective of the undertaking is to determine, through the story’s own events, which set of assumptions is more valid (with the reader, note well, being in equal jeopardy of having to yield ground).  If the narrated events seem engineered so as to produce an easy win for the author’s values, then sensible examination will unmask the ploy as a narrative failure.  If the represented events ring true and yet the characters’ decisions immerse them in misery or tragedy, then we may assume that the author is a deep pessimist or has, perhaps, retained his own most cherished values behind the scene.  If the reader believes that the tale’s tragedy is a “real” effect” yet also believes that values unexpressed or unrecognized in the fiction would have brought a happier result, then that alternate story must also be written—some day—with credible crises and outcomes before the “better values” may be granted a victory.  Stories, as had been said countless times, beget more stories.

All of this revolves around the idea that fundamental human values (“Jewish law”, in Renan’s terms) do exist; and, of course, the proposition is anathema in contemporary academe.  Do not look, then, for “scholarly” writing to pass Vie de Jésus or any other literary work under the kind of review which I have sought to exemplify here.  And yet, for what other reason have sane adults of good taste read and written stories throughout centuries of literate Western culture?


[i] All translations are my own.  Furthermore, since my copy of Vie de Jésus is an “e-book”, I must cite using chapter numbers rather than page numbers.  I apologize to the reader for any inconvenience in locating passages that this technique causes.

[ii] In a previous essay, I opted for the unhappy Greek word haeretics (“Narrative Haeretics: One Key to Understanding an Artfully Made Story,” Praesidium 10.4 [Fall 2010}).  This I have abandoned lest anyone think that I am trying to romanticize heresy.  The root meaning in both Greek and Latin is “to choose”.  Morality is the science of choice, as it were: where human beings have no options, their behavior has no moral value.  The task of the story-teller is to give characters choices in critical settings that reveal or imply the validity of whatever assumptions generate their choices.

Dr. John Harris, founder and current president of The Center for Literate Values, is also Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Texas at Tyler.